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Surfactants, or surface active agents, can be found just about anywhere: in medicines, cosmetics, detergents, food, animal feed, textiles, agricultural chemicals, construction materials, paints/inks, coatings and more. Because they, for example, lower the surface tension of a liquid, they ensure that the liquid more easily penetrates materials such as textiles, wood, the skin, the soil and other substances. In addition, they also ensure that certain substances stay in solution.
Pierre Gielen

Just over half of all surfactants currently on the market are at least partially produced from plant-based or other oleochemicals. Just under half is still fully produced from fossil raw materials. Only 4% of surfactants on the market is fully biobased (biosurfactants). However, they are produced using production processes that are quite hazardous and detrimental to the environment, and are therefore not really green.

It is almost impossible to find any biologically produced biosurfactants. This is why, two years ago, Flanders Biobased Valley, the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant (BBEPP),, SynBioC, Flamac and partners with the support of Catalisti, SIM and Vlaio started working together in the Flemish Innovation Partnership (VIS) AppliSurf research project. Objective: to develop, scale up and test microbially produced biosurfactants with input from industry. These biosurfactants 100% consist of biobased raw materials and are produced from renewable resources, such as plant-based oils, sugars, and food and other waste flows, using biological processes. This is effected through means of fermentation, biocatalysis or green chemistry. The project will be concluded this year with a two-day international conference in Ghent, Belgium.

Increasing Interest

‘While a few years ago any real interest in microbial biosurfactants on the part of industry was marginal, today we are seeing that company interest is on the rise,’ says Project Manager Sophie Roelants of the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant (BBEPP). ‘They are feeling the pressure of consumer demand for sustainability in all sectors. This is why there is an interest in a conference with a mix of diverse speakers, not only from academia, but also from industry.

What are the results of this two-year research into biosurfactants? ‘We are now able to present an extensive portfolio with approximately 20 microbial components that can already be produced on a kilogram scale, and even on a tonne scale, at BBEPP. In addition, there are another 40 derivatives from these components obtained through green chemistry and/or biocatalysis. We can make these new components available to companies that want to test them in their applications. In addition, we have carried out a physical-chemical and biological characterisation for all of these components. During this process we identified properties, such as surface tension, solubility, foam formation and emulsification, as well as the antimicrobial and antiviral properties. These properties make a biosurfactant suitable for application as a “surfactant” in a formulation, but also help companies reduce the quantity of preservation agents in their products.’

One area of attention continues to be the cost of biosurfactants in comparison to traditional surfactants. Roelants: ‘That difference will become smaller over time through large-scale production and by further optimising the processes. The Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant provides diverse research facilities and expertise for this purpose. We have ample experience in the development and upscaling of microbial biosurfactants, for example with the rhamnolipids and xylolipids produced by Evonik and Lanxess, respectively, that are already commercially available.’

Flanders Biobased Valley has been supporting the development of new biosurfactants for years. ‘The current project has made possible the identification and large-scale production of a large number of highly promising biosurfactants. Through our extensive network more than 30 companies have joined this project for the purpose of testing these new components, but there is still room for additional interested parties,’ says Sofie Dobbelaere, Managing Director of FBBV.

This article was created in cooperation with Flanders Biobased Valley.

Image above: BBEPP