Ignoble Prize: vanilla from poo

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Cows – vanilla factories of the future

This story from the CSIRO, “Science by Email”, Australia.

Mayu Yamamoto has won this year’s Ignoble Prize in Chemistry for discovering how to produce vanilla flavouring and fragrance from cow dung.

The chemical extracted is called vanillin, traditionally found in vanilla beans and responsible for the distinctive smell and taste of vanilla products.

Dung processing is simple and only costs half as much as making vanillin out of vanilla beans. It involves heating the cow poo for one hour then placing it under pressure.The vanillin could be used in products including shampoo and scented candles.

Mayu says it is unlikely it will be used in food because of its unsavoury origin.

“This component is exactly the same, but it would be difficult for people to accept it in food given the recent rules of disclosing the origins of ingredients,” Mayu said.

The excrement of grass-eating animals, like cows, is full of lignin. Lignin is the chemical Mayu used to make the vanillin. It’s just a matter of knowing the right chemistry to get it out.

“Lignin is difficult to decompose. Farmers are troubled by how to dispose properly of animal excrement. We tried to solve this from a recycling viewpoint,” she said.

Once processed, the leftover dung is easily returned to the soil – an environmentally friendly solution to a pooey problem.

The gourmet ice cream shop Toscanini’s created a new flavour especially for the Ignoble Awards ceremony. They have named it the “Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist” in Mayu’s honour.

The Ignoble Prizes are designed to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. These prizes are awarded to scientists in celebration of obscure and bizarre scientific discoveries.

Other winners worked on projects such as the maths of wrinkly bed sheets, investigating mindless eating by feeding people a self-refilling bowl of soup, and the medical consequences of sword swallowing.

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