One type of biotechnology which may lead to huge changes in a number of industrial sectors is industrial biotechnology. Industrial biotechnology means that enzymes and microorganisms are used in the processing and production of chemicals, rather than the current approach of using synthetic chemicals and fossil oil products as the starting point. The utilisation of renewable raw materials may become of great interest to industries involved with chemicals, paper and pulp, food and feedstuff, textiles and drugs, as well as to the energy sector.
Industrial biotechnology is, as far as possible, based on various renewable raw materials, such as vegetable oils and fatty acids. The challenge is to find suitable microorganisms and enzyme systems which effectively transform the raw materials into useable chemical substances.
Greenchem at Lund University runs a research and development programme in partnership with the industrial sector. It develops new production processes based on modern biotechnology. Products such as cleaning agents, skin care preparations, drugs, paints and varnishes must be made environmentally-sustainable, as do the production methods used to produce these.
“Our starting point is to use neither petroleum-based products nor other hazardous substances. Instead, we use biological processes and utilise the ability of microorganisms and enzymes to transform various natural substrates”, says Josefin Ahlqvist, programme secretary at Greenchem.
Greenchem has, for example, developed a product for surface treatment of furniture which is based on vegetable oil which has been chemically-altered by using the lipas enzyme. The product can be used as an ingredient in paints and varnishes, which traditionally are based on oil products. Another project involves the modernisation of the production process for alkanolamides, which are surfactant ingredients used in cleaning products, shampoo and skincare products. The production process has become more energy-efficient, and the end-product cleaner.
Greenchem’s overall target is to contribute to a paradigm shift in the world of chemicals by replacing petroleum-based raw materials with renewables.
“If the traditional chemicals industry is to change over to green chemicals, it must be profitable to the industry to do so. Otherwise, the change-over will never happen”, says Josefin Ahlqvist. She has in mind that the finished products must have at least the same performance as the products sold today, and that it must be possible to produce them on an industrial scale in an efficient and economical manner.
“The research carried out by Greenchem has matured since its inception in 2003. Once we have developed and tested new production processes in small-scale trials, we will rely on our partners in industry for the vitally important opportunity to run large-tests trials”, she says.
Greenchem is now trying to reach more European companies and research teams, with the aim of developing collaboration. The switch to green chemicals is also about informing consumers. For this reason, Greenchem is also working in partnership with other parties interested in disseminating knowledge about industrial biotechnology, such as the Biotechnology Forum, which is a network working in partnership with consumer associations, businesses, politicians and others to market green chemicals.
This article was first published in Advantage Environment printed in February 2008