Lactose is a low-value by-product of cheese production. Altogether, about 1.2 million tons are generated annually worldwide by the dairy industry. Most of the resulting lactose is disposed of in waste water leading to environmental problems. To reduce the environmental impact the dairy industry needs to minimize this waste, either by converting lactose to smaller organic and inorganic carbon compounds more suitable for disposal or, preferably, to a lactose derivative compound with significant value.
At Michigan Tech, researchers have modified a catalytic wet oxidation process (common in sewage treatment) where O2 is added to a 3 percent lactose-water solution in the presence of a catalyst under heat and pressure. Catalytic wet oxidation converts whey (comprised of water, proteins, minerals and lactose) to carbon dioxide and water. The process has been modified to produce lactobionic acid, a marketable by-product for food preservation, cosmetics and pharmaceutical applications. During the process, heat is generated and may provide additional value as recovered energy. In addition to producing a marketable by-product, this process is simple and offers a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional waste treatment methods.
Exclusive or nonexclusive licensing is available on this technology (U.S. Patent No. 7,371,362, issued May 13, 2008). For more information contact John Diebel in the Office of Innovation and Industry Engagement, 906-487-1082.