Biosurfacant Derived from Rice Straw as Alternative to Chemicals in Soaps

A scientist has found a way to use one of the world’s most copious natural resources as a substitute for human-made chemicals in soaps and thousands of other domestic items.

Pictured here is Dr Pattanathu Rahman, microbial biotechnologist from the University of Portsmouth and Director of TeeGene. (Image credit: University of Portsmouth)

A novel research work, published recently and led by the University of Portsmouth, has shown that bails of rice straw could form a “biosurfactant.” This biosurfactant could be an alternative non-toxic ingredient in the manufacture of a wide range of products that typically include synthetic materials, which are mostly petroleum-based.

The biotechnology project aimed to solve one of the most demanding environmental issues of the planet—seeking a way to reduce the amount of human-made chemicals used in daily life. The study has been co-supervised by the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation, working along with Amity University in India and the Indian Institute of Technology.

The researchers were hunting for a natural substitute for chemical surfactants, a key active ingredient in the manufacture of medicine, make-up, cleaning products, sun cream, and insecticides. The surfactant holds water and oil together, enabling the surface tension of a liquid to be lowered, thereby promoting the cleaning power and penetration of the product.

Dr Pattanathu Rahman, microbial biotechnologist from the University of Portsmouth and Director of TeeGene, collaborated with academics and PhD Scholar Mr Sam Joy from 2015 to develop a biosurfactant by brewing rice straw with enzymes. The researchers believe this eco-friendly technique leads to a superior-quality ingredient that manufacturing industries desperately need.

Surfactants are everywhere, including detergent, fabric softener, glue insecticides, shampoo, toothpaste, paint, laxatives, and make up. Imagine if we could make and manufacture biosurfactants 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.

Dr Pattanathu Rahman, Microbial Biotechnologist, University of Portsmouth

Researchers participating in the study believe the application of biosurfactants made from rice straw or other agricultural waste could have a positive ecological effect in several ways:

  • There is greater worry about the effect of the chemical surfactants used in everyday products, most of which find their way to the oceans.
  • Rice straw is a natural by-product of the rice harvest, with millions of tons produced globally each year.
  • Farmers usually burn the waste, thus generating hazardous environmental emissions. Using the waste to develop another product could be an advantageous and efficient recycling process.
  • There could also be an economic benefit to using biosurfactants made from agricultural waste.

The levels of purity needed for biosurfactants 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.

Dr Pattanathu Rahman, Microbial Biotechnologist, University of Portsmouth

The research reveals that biosurfactants could be a possible substitute for the synthetic surfactant molecules, with a market worth of US$2.8 billion in 2023. The substantial attention gained by biosurfactants in the last few years is also because of their biodegradable nature, low toxicity, and specificity, which would help them comply with the European Surfactant Directive.

According to Dr Rahman, the process of making biosurfactants requires new attitudes to soap and cleaning products.

Most people consider soap to be an effective means of removing bacteria from their skin. However, we have flipped this concept on its head by discovering a way to create soap from bacteria. They have anti-microbial properties suitable for cosmetic products and biotherapeutics. This approach will channelise the majority of the waste management solutions and could create new job opportunities.

Dr Pattanathu Rahman, Microbial Biotechnologist, University of Portsmouth

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