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Microbial enzymes to produce greener detergents, textiles and cosmetics

FuturEnzyme, a European project led by the CSIC, aims to obtain microbial enzymes to replace chemical agents in consumer products. The scientific team will develop a method to quickly identify enzymes that are effective, stable, and that can be obtained through a low-cost process. The project will bring the developed process to industrial scale.

The project FuturEnzyme aims to obtain microbial enzymes to replace chemical agents in consumer products, such as textiles, detergents and cosmetics, to make them not only more environmentally friendly. Image: RDCSICA team of researchers from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) is leading a European project to obtain microbial enzymes that can be used to create greener consumer products, such as textiles, detergents and cosmetics. The project, called FuturEnzyme, has just started. It has been funded with near six million euros by the EU's Horizon 2020 R&D&I framework programme.

Detergents, textiles and cosmetics are basic everyday goods with complex formulations that can pollute the environment. Also, their production and use can have a high impact on CO2 emissions, as well as consuming large amounts of energy, water and forming chemical waste.

Some market and industrial studies have shown that enzymes can reduce the ecological footprint (CO2 production, consumption of energy, water and toxic agents) of these products, making them not only more environmentally friendly but also innovative and with improved characteristics.

The use of these enzymes could reduce CO2 emissions by 42 million tonnes a year, according to recent estimations. "The use of enzymes makes it possible to have a more environmentally friendly product," explains Manuel Ferrer, a CSIC researcher at the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry (ICP-CSIC) and coordinator of this European project. "For example, using enzymes reduces the required amount of salts, bleaching agents and surfactants in detergents – which therefore reduces the toxicity of the product. Also, the demand for energy is reduced as it allows low temperature washings. The environmental impact is reduced, as fewer toxic products are released into the water circuit during its use or at the end of its useful life."

“Avoiding chemical agents is crucial because the production of detergents, toxins and cosmetics will be affected by the carbon tax and by other measures established to impose limits for CO2 emissions and toxic substances, as well as to reduce energy consumption and tackle climate change,” says Ferrer. He adds that "the use of enzymes makes it possible to obtain products with new characteristics, such as sport clothing with improved properties."

The use of these enzymes could reduce CO2 emissions by 42 million tonnes a year, according to recent estimations.

Reducing production costs

Although there are already enzymes on the market that can be used by the industry in many sectors, they are present in less than 10% of current consumer products, either because of their high cost or their low profit.

The problem is that adding enzymes adds an extra cost. "In this project we want to identify more quickly enzymes of microbial origin that are more effective and stable, and that can be produced at a lower cost," explains Manuel Ferrer.

To achieve this, the FuturEnzyme multidisciplinary consortium will use detergents, cosmetics and clothing (for example, sportswear) already available on the market. "The idea is not to design new products that would take years to market, but to improve existing ones to make them more ecological, functional and sustainable by incorporating enzymes into the production process," says Ferrer.

The project will combine massive processing of biological data by supercomputers - task that will be developed at the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre by Prof. Víctor Guallar's team- with bioprospecting, protein engineering, and biotechnology analysis, as well as pre-industrial tests. The goal is to select the best enzymes from among thousands or millions of them, something that has not been possible until now.

Will this project make the production of detergents with microbial enzymes less costly than at present? The answer, Ferrer concludes, is yes. "The enzymes can be selected and then synthesised very cheaply," Ferrer adds, "and the production will be carried out on an industrial scale by means of collaboration with partners who have the capacity to carry out fermentations on a scale of thousands of litres. On the other hand, the new enzymes, which will be cheaper and more efficient, "can be incorporated in smaller quantities while maintaining efficiency and reducing the cost of the products."

The FuturEnzyme consortium is made up of 16 European academic and industrial partners from Spain, Austria, Italy, Portugal, the UK, Switzerland and Germany. CSIC is not only the coordinator of the project, but is also involved in all stages, from the extraction and characterisation of the enzymes, their improvement through engineering techniques and low-cost production to pre-industrial-scale testing. Julia Sanz, from the Rocasolano Institute of Physical Chemistry (Instituto de Química Física Rocasolano,  IQFR-CSIC), who will be in charge of characterising the enzyme structures, is also participating as principal investigator. FuturEnzyme began on 1st June 2021 and will run until 2025.

Twitter: @futurenzyme