Every year, over 13 million tonnes of surface active agents (SAs) otherwise known as surfactants and emulsifiers are used in healthcare, agriculture, public health, textiles, food and in environmental pollution control. They are indispensible in almost every sector of modern industry as they bind water-soluble and oily substances together.
At present, most of the SAs or surfactants used by industry are synthetically manufactured using petrochemicals, which are non-renewable and also have a potentially toxic effect on humans and the environment. However, specific marine micro-organisms can be used as surfactants or SAs but without the negative side effects.
World-leading researchers at Ulster University are now part of a European wide consortium led by Heriot-Watt University, using a collection of these environmentally friendly marine micro-organisms from seas and oceans around the world, and adapting them for industrial use.
The EU MARISURF project team, which includes Ulster University's Professor Ibrahim Banat and Emeritus Professor Roger Marchant, aims to satisfy increasing consumer demand for natural and environmentally friendly solutions, which comes from changing government legislation requiring renewable and less toxic compounds.
With globally renowned research expertise in the use of microbial surfactants, Ulster University has secured over €700,000 of the overall €4.8 million.
Professor Ibrahim Banat, said:
"The foundations for this development are all down to the unique collection of microbes from the world's oceans which have been collected and stored at Heriot-Watt University.
"Ulster University's work will be to optimise fermentation of the microbes and produce small quantities of these naturally sourced surfactants which can be tested and evaluated for use in a broad range of international industries.
"The use of marine compounds and in particular these microbes, offers enormous benefits to businesses and large scale industry and manufacturing. With legislation becoming increasingly stringent in the use of petrochemicals, it has never been more important to find a source of natural, sustainable chemical compounds. The MARISURF project team not only aims to exceed the demands of legislation but also take these products to market through industrial collaboration."
The project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.