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CSIRO and Porifera have joined forces to bring new food concentration technology that uses forward osmosis to Australia.

CSIRO and US environmental services startup Porifera are collaborating on forward osmosis technology for food applications, with the first commercial unit for the Australian food industry demonstrated at CSIRO’s food innovation centre in Werribee, Melbourne late last year.

Forward osmosis costs significantly less to implement and operate than its main competitor technology, evaporation, according to CSIRO, and has applications in beverages such as fruit juices, as well as dairy products, proteins, water treatment, and any application where water is removed.

Preliminary estimates show that the capital costs of forward osmosis can be less than 70 per cent, and operating costs less than 60 per cent of those for evaporation, according to CSIRO’s separations specialist Kirthi De Silva. As a result, forward osmosis can be installed on-farm, not just in-factory, thus also reducing transportation costs.

This technology, based on osmotic pressure, doesn’t use heat so concentrates are of higher functionality and quality.

Aroma compounds and nutritional attributes, for example, are retained more than in evaporation, which does use heat.

CSIRO and Porifera plan to collaborate to fast-track the development of specific forward osmosis applications that meet the needs of the food industry and provide opportunities for current and new processes and products.

Porifera specialises in the development and manufacture of forward osmosis and membrane technology, while CSIRO’s food innovation centre helps food, beverage, ingredient and equipment companies that want to innovate.

De Silva said the pair have highly complementary expertise, technology, skills and assets in technology design, equipment manufacture and application knowledge, along with specialist process and product development knowledge in the food industry.

“Given the advantages in energy and transport efficiency, high quality concentrates and product functionality, amongst others, we believe there is a bright future for forward osmosis technology in the food industry,” De Silva said.

The range of potential product application opportunities include: on a dairy farm, in-factory manufacturing efficiency of existing products, and improved ingredient functionality for yoghurts, cheeses, flavours, heat sensitive bioactives and more.

The recent technology demonstration of the first commercial unit aimed to showcase the potential of the technology to industry.

“At CSIRO we have been working on forward osmosis in small pilot-scale for several years using technology supplied by Porifera and are excited to have just received the first industrial-scale forward osmosis system, that attendees saw operating in our food innovation centre,” De Silva said.

The reaction from the more than 50 industry participants was very positive, he said.

“As a result, several companies are progressing discussions with us on product opportunities with the technology.

“We expect that dairy will be a key sector of the industry to benefit because they are heavy users of concentration as part of the conversion of milk to dried products,” De Silva said.

“We can also see this technology leading the dairy companies to new product development opportunities in functional dairy products, for example.

“We also see it being used on-farm for concentration of milk, which will also reduce transport costs.”

According to De Silva, another thing forward osmosis can be applied to in the dairy industry is concentrating protein fractions prior to drying, again because it’s a gentle process and retains functional properties.

“Thermal treatment of fruit juices can really adversely affect product quality, so we expect beverage companies would benefit from forward osmosis technology as a gentle method to concentrate without the loss of aromas, flavours and nutritional components.”