PORTSMOUTH, UK – A University of Portsmouth scientist has discovered a way of using one of the world’s most abundant natural resources as a replacement for chemicals in many common products.

An innovative research project, published led by the University of Portsmouth, has demonstrated that bails of rice straw could create a bio-surfacant, providing an alternative non-toxic ingredient in the production of a vast variety of products that normally include synthetic materials that are often petroleum based.

The biotechnology project set out to solve one of the planet’s most pressing environmental problems, looking for a way of reducing the amount of manmade chemicals in everyday life. It has been co-supervised by University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation, working in conjunction with Amity University and the Indian Institute of Technology.

The study was looking for a natural replacement for chemical surfactants. The surfactant holds oil and water together, helping to lower the surface tension of a liquid.

Dr. Pattanathu Rahman, Microbial Biotechnologist from the University of Portsmouth and Director of TeeGene worked with academics and PhD scholar Sam Joy to create a bio-surfacant by brewing rice straw with enzymes. The scientists believe this environmentally friendly method results in a high-quality ingredient that manufacturing industries are asking for.

Dr. Rahman said, “Surfactants are everywhere, including detergent, fabric softener, glue, insecticides, shampoo, toothpaste, paint, laxatives and make up. Imagine if we could make and manufacture bio-surfacants in sufficient quantities to use instead of surfactants, taking the manmade chemical bonds out of these products. This research shows that with the use of agricultural waste such as rice straws, which is in plentiful supply, we are a step closer.”

Scientists behind the research believe the use of bio-surfactants created from rice straw or other agricultural waste could have a positive ecological effect in a number of ways. There is significant concern about the impact of the chemical surfactants used in household products, most of which ends up in the oceans. Rice straw is a natural by-product of the rice harvest, with millions of tons created worldwide every year. Farmers often burn the waste, producing harmful environmental emissions. Using it to create another product could be an efficient and beneficial recycling process. There could also be an economic advantage to using bio-surfacants produced from agricultural waste.

Dr. Rahman explained, “The levels of purity needed for bio-surfactants in the industries in which they’re used is extremely high. Because of this, they can be very expensive. However, the methods we have of producing them make it much more economical and cost efficient. It’s a very exciting technology with tremendous potential for applications in a range of industries.”

The study shows that bio-surfactants could be a potential alternative for the synthetic surfactant molecules, with a market value of $2.8 billion in 2023. The considerable interest in bio-surfactants in recent years is also due to their low toxicity, biodegradable nature and specificity, which would help them meet the European Surfactant Directive.

Full details of this research are in the September 2019 edition of Bioresource Technology.