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German researchers develop enzyme-based process to create epoxides

If we truly want to move away from petroleum and the emissions they cause, we have to look beyond its role as a power or fuel source.

That is because aside from being an energy source, petroleum is used in the production of many chemical products. Petroleum is used to produce epoxides, highly reactive organic compounds needed in products like lubricants for vehicles and engines and surfactants or emulsifiers in cleaning solutions.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes in Leuna, Germany have developed a pilot plant-scale production process for epoxides that uses domestic vegetable oils instead of petroleum.

“To reduce the dependence on petroleum and carve out potential savings in CO2 equivalents, the industry needs ultramodern biorefineries. In Leuna, we are creating just the right processes for this,” says Dr. Katja Patzsch, group manager for biotechnological processes at the center.

In 2009, roughly 14 million tons of vegetable oil was used, compared with about 400 million tons of mineral oil in the same year.

The center uses a chemical enzymatic process developed at another Fraunhofer Institute, the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, ramping it up for industrial application.

The process uses oils that emerge from food production as byproducts. These fluid oils and fatty acids are exposed to an enzyme lipase, which catalyzes peracid, an epoxidation medium.

The benefits of the process lie in its use of enzymes which are easier and more efficient to handle than previously used catalysts. They can also be used at moderate temperatures, at neutral “pH” values and under normal pressure.

The process is the fruit of a project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, which focuses on increasing the use of sustainable raw materials for the production of synthetic components for the chemical industry.

The next phase of the project, scheduled until 2014, will focus on optimizations and adjusting the scale of the process. This will include testing the process in conjunction with several industry partners. – EcoSeed Staff

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