At present, 70 per cent of surfactants are still derived from fossil resources, chief among which is oil. In order to solve this problem, French-Belgian research team ValBran is investigating whether it is possible to synthesise surfactants with high added value from bran, the hard outer layer of wheat grain. Their work contributes to the development of biobased surfactants.

What are the team’s findings now that the project has reached the halfway point? We look back at the interim project event organised by ValBiom at the Ghent-based Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant on 7 November.

VITO is a partner in this project and focuses on the enzymatic production of sucrose esters and alkyl glycosides.

Biobased surfactants, did you say?

Surfactants are agents that change the surface tension between two surfaces. They are used in a wide range of products and applications (e.g. shampoo, soap, detergent and paint), acting as a cleaning agent, emulsifier, solvent, foaming agent, dispersant, surface tension reducer and much more.

Non-biobased (petrochemical) surfactants and partially biobased surfactants (consisting of over 40% of biologically derived compounds) currently make up the bulk of the market.

Fully biobased surfactants, which contain over 95% of compounds derived from biomass, are in limited supply and that is why several research projects, including ValBran and AppliSurf, are currently under way to address this.

Ways to produce these biobased surfactants include:

  • Chemical production, in which biomass is used as the feedstock in a chemical conversion process which produces a surfactant. It is key to note here that the bulk of biobased surfactants available on the market are produced through a chemical process.
  • Biological production, meaning by way of enzymatic extraction, biocatalysis or fermentation. (Examples include the ValBran and AppliSurf projects.)

The advantages of biocatalysis is that the process can be carried out in a single step and with high selectivity, whilst restricting the formation of undesirable products. In the case of fermentation, the biomass is used as a growth medium for micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and yeasts) that will then produce interesting molecules, including biosurfactants.

However, the development and sale of these biosurfactants are constrained by increased cost and other factors. The ValBran and AppliSurf projects aim to develop solutions that will remove these barriers to the production of biosurfactants.

Surfactants – a target market for ValBran

The ValBran project proposes a possible solution to meet market demand for biosurfactants. The aim of the project is to valorise wheat bran (an agricultural by-product available in abundance in our regions from mills and the production of bioethanol), by converting it into surfactants for applications that generate high added value.

The target markets are:

  • Cosmetics
  • Phytosanitary products
  • Additives for food and animal feed
  • Detergents

The project studies two categories of surfactants:

Alkyl polyglycosides (APG), the global market for which is estimated at 100,000 tonnes per year. Alkyl polyglycosides are used as emulsifiers in applications such as cosmetics, detergents and phytosanitary products.
Sucrose esters, the global market for which is approximately 10,000 tonnes per year. Sucrose esters are mainly used as emulsifiers in cosmetics and foodstuffs.

These surfactants are synthesised by hydrolysing cellulose and hemicellulose from wheat bran and grafting an alcohol chain or lipid chain onto these sugars with the help of an enzyme. The next step is to test the surfactant properties of the synthesised molecules.

See the presentation below: The valorisation of wheat bran into surfactant molecules. Dissemination of the ValBran mid-term research results by Caroline Rémond (INRA/URCA FARE), Magali Deleu (ULiège) & Yamini Satyawali (VITO) – ValBran consortium

Corporate testimonials

The outcomes of the ValBran project will soon allow wheat bran to be used for the production of surfactants. How has the project been received by industry? In particular those companies that focus on wheat bran valorisation and the producers and users of surfactants?

On 7 November, four businesses talked about their related activities and the link with the ValBran project:

1. Testimonial by a handler of the raw material (wheat)

Cargill is a company specialising in the supply of food ingredients. One of the challenges facing the food sector is how to reduce sugar content and increase the amount of fibre in a consumer’s daily intake. One solution is to micronise wheat bran (which is rich in fibre and low in calories) for inclusion in food products, especially baked goods and chocolate fillings.

2. Testimonial by a producer of innovative, eco-certified molecules

Seppic is active in the production of innovative, high-performance specialty ingredients. The company works to offer new ingredients that meet the expectations of users, i.e. ingredients that have been derived from natural resources, preserve health and are kind to the environment. Seppic has developed biosurfactants, including APG, as part of its product offering. It has shown great interest in the research carried out in the context of the ValBran project, as a way to make its ingredients more sustainable and enhance their effect.

3. Testimonial by a developer of natural and eco-friendly cleaning products

There are various companies that already incorporate biosurfactants in their products. Among them is Ecover, which has offered environmentally friendly cleaning products since 1979. The company began including biosurfactants in its formulations in 2009. In its presentation, Ecover showed that the demand for biosurfactants, more specifically APG, has been on the rise for a number of years now.

4. Testimonial from the feed industry

Nuscience markets products for animal feed and has specialised in fermented feed in particular. The reason for this is that fermentation increases the nutritional value of the feed. One of the products in the ValBran project is a solid residue which the feed industry might be able to put to use. It is thought that the bran residue, which is enriched with enzymes used to extract the precursors of the biosurfactants, could offer interesting nutritional qualities in animal feed.

All of this serves to confirm there is indeed interest in biosurfactants.

The testimonials and the large number of participants in the event testify to the importance of developing and supporting research projects such as ValBran. Large companies, including Ecover, Seppic and Sopura, have already indicated they are keen to use the molecules developed by ValBran.

The project therefore does not only respond to a demand on the market for new biosurfactants, but it also answers the question of how wheat bran, an abundant by-product from agriculture, can be used to generate additional added value without competing with current valorisations.