More and more everyday products are based on renewable resources
More and more everyday products are based on renewable resources, with household cleaners now containing active cleaning substances (surfactants) made from plant oils and sugar. These fat and dirt removers are especially environmentally friendly and effective when produced using biotechnology, with the aid of fungi and bacteria.
Detergents are everywhere — in washing powders, dishwashing liquids, household cleaners, skin creams, shower gels, and shampoos. It is the detergent that loosens dirt and fat, makes hair-washing products foam up and allows creams to be absorbed quickly. Up until now, most detergents are manufactured from crude oil — a fossil fuel of which there is only a limited supply. In their search for alternatives, producers are turning increasingly to detergents made from sustainable resources, albeit that these surfactants are usually chemically produced. The problem is that the substances produced via such chemical processes are only suitable for a small number of applications, since they display only limited structural diversity — which is to say that their molecular structure is not very complex. Now researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB are taking a different approach: they are manufacturing surfactants using biotechnological methods, with the assistance of fungi and bacteria.
“We produce biosurfactants microbially, based on sustainable resources such as sugar and plant oil,” says Suzanne Zibek, a technical biologist and engineer at the IGB in Stuttgart. The scientist and her team use cellobiose lipids (CL) and mannosylerythritol lipids (MEL) because testing has shown these to be promising for industrial application. They are produced in large quantities by certain types of smut fungus, of the kind that can affect corn plants. What is more, CL also has antibacterial properties.
What marks biological surfactants out from their synthetic competitors is their increased structural diversity. In addition, they are biodegradable, are less toxic and are just as good at loosening fats. But despite all this, to date they are used in only a few household products and cosmetics. The reason is that they are costly and difficult to produce, with low yields. One substance that has been successfully brought to market is the sophorose lipid made by Candida bombicola, which is used by a number of manufacturers as an additive in household cleaning products. This biosurfactant is produced by a yeast that is harvested from bumble-bee nectar.
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