Converting wood waste into vanilla: Innovative student research advances in global competition

Vanilla orchid Vanilla, which comes from vanilla orchids (pictured above), is one of the most popular—and expensive—spices in the world.

Amir Kashani, a master's student in UBC’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has been chosen by the Forest Products Association of Canada to participate in the international Blue Sky Young Researchers Innovation Award competition.

The competition, which takes place every two years, is open to students and researchers under 30 who are pursuing forest-based research and innovation projects. This year’s event is titled “Forest-based products and services: how disruptive technologies are revolutionizing the future.”

"It is a true honour for me to represent Canada in this competition," Kashani told Pulp & Paper Canada. "Being recognized for research activities that are also a personal passion is really gratifying."

Kashani’s research focuses on lignin, or the “glue” that binds wood fibres together and is largely treated as a waste product in the pulp and paper industry. Kashani is investigating how microorganisms can be used to transform lignin into a range of sustainable products, including food flavouring agents like capsaicin and vanillin, the most popular flavour in the food industry.

Vanillin, an organic compound which gives cured vanilla beans their distinctive taste and smell, is already being produced from lignin by chemical means. But if Kashani’s research is successful, the vanillin supplied by his living organisms could be classified and sold as a natural product, significantly increasing its commercial value. In recent years, the demand for vanillin has increased along with the price of vanilla beans, which has spiked due to reduced supply and increased demand. 

The same method Kashani is developing for vanillin may also be used to produce capsaicin, a vanillin derivative that is responsible for the spiciness and pungency of chili peppers. In addition to its use as a food flavouring, the compound has applications in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and pepper sprays.

The only Canadian researcher selected to take part in the Blue Sky competition this year, Kashani will have an opportunity to present his research before a panel of industry leaders at the International Council of Forest & Paper Associations’ CEO Roundtable in Vancouver if he reaches the final round.

 

Photo credit: "Vanilla planifolia flowering in Florida Southern College's greenhouse" by Malcolm Manners is licensed under CC by 2.0