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PEORIA, IL. - An environmentally friendly process to extract and separate some of the most valuable components of common crops is expanding worldwide after more than a decade of development in Peoria.

The products of a green solvent system pioneered at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research lab on University Street potentially fill a range of food, pharmaceutical and industrial applications — from sweeteners to capsules to biodegradable plastics.

But new research underway by a Brazilian scientist working with the founder of the system aims to adapt the method from use with crops such as corn and beans to a decidedly more southern harvest: bananas.

Analia Gomez, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo, arrived in Peoria in November to spend a year working on the framework of a method to separate soluble sugars and non-starch fiber from banana puree using non-toxic additives and microwave or ultrasound technology to maximize the efficiency of the process.

"We're looking for a technique that is friendly for the environment and people working with it," Gomez said. "The idea is to scale the process (for potential commercial applications)."

Her research, funded by a grant from the Sao Paulo Research Foundation, builds on principles developed by Atanu Biswas, an ag lab scientist who founded a system to dissolve starch in organic material more than 10 years ago at the Peoria facility.

One of the key discoveries of the system included natural deep eutectic solvents (NADES) — agricultural products such as citric acid and certain sugars, when combined in the proper ratios, created a solvent medium that could take the place of more toxic solvents such as ethanol to dissolve starch.

More than 100 NADES formulas have since been developed.

"We use natural components to avoid environmentally unfriendly (solvents)," Biswas said. "There's limitless potential."

The resulting fiber extraction creates food-grade material that is safe for consumption as a food additive, as a component of a drug delivery vehicle in medication or even as a biodegradable, plastic-like substance for food packaging or other uses.

The process already has been applied to antioxidant and starch extraction from black and red beans, Biswas said.

"Now, we're trying to get an optimal formula of NADES for banana puree just right," Gomez said.

The conclusion of the collaborative research will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, with the possibility the same methodology could be applied to additional agricultural crops in the United States and become part of commercial enterprises in Brazil.

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