An alternative to plastic, a winning idea

15 September 2017

Johan Verbeek

Associate Professor Johan Verbeek is a finalist in the IChemE international awards.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has announced the finalists for its global awards and the University of Waikato’s Associate Professor Johan Verbeek is one of them.

The awards celebrate excellence, innovation and achievement in the chemical, process and biochemical industries. There are 15 categories and Dr Verbeek is one of eight finalists in the Innovative Product Award. He had to “have my arm twisted” to enter, but now finds himself in illustrious company, including Dow Europe (Switzerland), Dow Italia and Dow USA.

Dr Verbeek has spent the last decade developing a way to use animal by-products that prevent meat products from contamination during the meat-works process. Traditionally meat processors have relied on clips and plugs made from plastic and which have to be removed before rendering, but Dr Verbeek and his team have developed Novatein, a thermoplastic polymer made mostly from rendered protein and which doesn't need removal. They started manufacturing last year.

“We’re producing it commercially in a factory in Te Rapa and the research, all done at the University of Waikato, is ongoing,” Dr Verbeek says. Aduro Biopolymers has three full-time staff members and Dr Verbeek spends 20% of his time at the factory. Darren Harpur is CEO and former Waikato PhD student Dr Jim Bier is also part of the team.

Dr Verbeek says it hasn’t been an easy 10 years. Lack of funding in the early stages meant progress was slow, but they’ve now established some good relationships with partners who support research and production. “Alongside the University we have commercial partners in New Zealand and Australia as we continue to develop a range of bio-derived polymers and materials for use in various sectors, including horticulture, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.”

He says what’s so good about Novatein is that the starting material required for the product is obtained during meat processing, used during meat processing and disposed of in a similar way that it’s made – through rendering.

The IChemE awards will be announced at a dinner in Birmingham in November.  At this stage, Dr Verbeek’s not sure if he’ll be going. “It’s a long way to go for dinner, but if I can tie it in with something else, then maybe I’ll go.”

Twenty-one countries are represented at the awards, and the only other New Zealand finalist is in the same category as Dr Verbeek.

For more information on chemical engineering at Waikato:

Subscribe for more Stories about STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Maths) subjects stories

If you're interested in knowing when more Waikato stories featuring Stories about STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Maths) subjects are published, enter your email address to be notified.