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Unilever Seeks More Renewables

Industrial Biotech: Consumer products firm, U.K. university join for biobased chemicals development

by Alex Scott
September 9, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 36

Credit: Shutterstock
Unilever is targeting sugar beet residue as a source of renewable chemicals.
Credit: Shutterstock
Unilever is targeting sugar beet residue as a source of renewable chemicals.

Unilever has begun a research project with England’s University of Liverpool to develop renewable chemicals from biomass for use in its home and personal care products. The effort is the latest attempt by a consumer products company to increase the renewable materials content of its products without adding costs for the buying public.

The three-year project, according to Unilever, is driven by increased demand for sustainable raw materials and the need for alternatives to fossil fuels. “By taking a long-term view, we can ensure security of supply, reduce costs, and protect scarce resources,” the firm says.

The partners plan to develop chemicals from forestry waste and from sugars, fats, oils, and carbohydrates generated as by-products from industrial processes. University researchers will use high-throughput methods in their labs in Liverpool to develop new routes to renewable molecules. AB Sugar, a sugar producer that recently opened the U.K.’s largest bioethanol plant, is also a partner in the project. AB Sugar will supply the researchers with sugar beet residue, a material with potential to yield such compounds.

“This innovative project brings together academia and industry experts from the fields of materials chemistry, biorefineries, catalysis, and chemical synthesis to address some of the challenges of converting biomass materials into new high-value chemical products,” says Jose A. Lopez-Sanchez, a lecturer in sustainable chemistry and catalysis at Liverpool and the leader of the research.

The project will contribute to Unilever’s goals of sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020 and decoupling business growth from environmental impact. U.S. consumer products giant Procter & Gamble is also developing biomaterials through collaborations with biotech firms including LS9 and ZeaChem. Likewise, German rival Henkel is trying to boost its use of enzymes and other renewable raw materials.

All three companies, however, face the challenge highlighted by Len Sauers, P&G’s vice president for global sustainability, in the firm’s most recent environment report: Few consumers are willing to pay a premium for greener goods. Thus, the processes they are developing will have to be cost-competitive from the outset.



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