One of Mexico´s most pressing
challenges is obesity, which affects seven of every 10 people, according to
data from the OECD, making it one of the countries with the highest incidence
of diabetes and cavities worldwide. On the other hand, Mexico is also one of
Latin America´s top emitters of CO2, with 40% of these emissions stemming from
the burning of agricultural waste. These seemingly unconnected facts inspired
Javier Larragoiti to develop an innovative process which is both less expensive
and more ecological than existing agricultural waste disposal methods and
produces a marketable sugar substitute.
One day during this young man´s continual search for practical, every day, scientific applications, Larragoiti visited a farm in the Mexican state of Puebla where he observed enormous quantities of agricultural waste, in large part from corn crops, which are later burned, thereby releasing CO2 and other toxic substances into the atmosphere. He then linked this observation with his sister´s dentistry doctoral thesis on the properties of a sweetener called xylitol: specifically, that it does not cause cavities, is suitable for diabetics and contains a lower caloric value than sugar. This compound is produced from xylose, which is abundant in corn.
While the use of xylitol as a sweetener is nothing new, having been produced in Finland, where it is extracted from birch trees, since the 1950s, and is still included today in processed food products like chewing gum, Larragoiti´s approach is novel because, for the first time, it extracts this substance from corn, an inexpensive prime material which does not require any additional processing, unlike certain biofuels, for example.
His next step consisted of engineering an innovative chemical process to produce xylitol. Instead of using the traditional catalytic hydrogenation method, which relies on catalyzers and high temperatures and pressure conditions (thereby impacting production costs and the amount of energy required to execute the process), Larragoiti devised a biorefinery system. Through the fermentation of a local variety of high-performance yeast at just 30°C and under normal atmospheric pressure conditions, this process not only produces xylitol but also reusable byproducts, like cellulose and lignin, which can be used to generate 50% of the energy consumed by the process itself.
Commercialization efforts for the xylitol obtained through Larragoiti´s process is still in their infancy, but are quickly taking shape. This young entrepreneur, alongside four partners, has co-founded the company XiliNat and established an initial pilot plant to debug and refine the process. Currently, biorefined xylitol production costs are 50% lower than the cost of the traditional process.
In parallel with the recruitment of new investors, the young inventor is developing a plan to establish more production plants near important agricultural centers, where producers can offer the greatest benefit. While Larragoiti´s efforts are focused on the commercial development of xylitol, other research groups are also studying new uses for the rest of the waste products generated by the process.
According to the director of the postgraduate studies program at the Biotechnology and Food Products School at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (Mexico) and jury member for the Innovators Under 35 Latin America 2017 competition, Jorge Welti, "the production method and the prime material employed [by Larragoiti] are innovative, through the application of a biotechnological process [which he has] made more ecological, sustainable and respectful of the environment."