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NIAB Scientists Help Transform Production of Oil-Based Goods

02 July 2008

The humble rosemary plant could revolutionise the way that some oil-based products are made, providing a “green” alternative to the synthetics and fossil fuels which are presently used.

Research scientists at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge have joined a group of leading industry and research partners to determine the feasibility of using environmentally friendly antioxidants (AO) extracted from rosemary plants for the production of cosmetics, plastics and lubricants.

Rosemary extract is increasingly under scrutiny for its AO properties. Like other AOs, it inhibits and fights free radicals. Present evidence suggests that there are relatively large quantities of strong AOs in the foliage of rosemary which could be extracted and used for other purposes besides culinary.

Members of the group working with NIAB on this collaborative project, which is partly sponsored by Defra through the Renewable Materials LINK programme, are Bangor University Composites Centre; Aston University; Boots-Alliance; Co-operative Retail; Croda International; Frontier Agriculture; Horticultural Development Council; Industrial Co-polymers; Lubrizol and Uponor Housing Solutions Limited.

The cutting-edge project is described as “an opportunity to enable the totally green supply of lubricants, cosmetics/health products and polymers, especially packaging, thus catalysing market opportunity for much wider crop production for fossil fuel replacement (oilseeds, cereals etc) which would be used to manufacture these biological based products.”

The pioneering NIAB research, which started in February and will run for 30 months, is being led by genetic scientist Dr Lydia Smith. It will be of special interest to UK farmers because there is evidence to suggest that growing the of rosemary in the cooler, cloudier conditions of Northern Europe can yield higher levels of AOs compared to those grown in the warmer Southern Mediterranean climate.

Dr Smith said the potential of this project was far reaching, and could really change the way oil-based products were produced, enabling “greener” alternatives to be used instead of synthetics and fossil fuels. She said:

“I think this is a very exciting project on many levels; it is a new crop for us, and we are exploring its potential for a very different level of cultivation than its current small-scale single use as a culinary herb. It could become a much more significant crop with interest from several different industries. It is quite exciting for the environment, for industry and for us to make a start at improving sustainability in a range of products. And from the perspective of biodiversity, here is a new crop species to add to the landscape. The UK arable landscape has become increasingly dominated by fewer and fewer crops; mainly cereals and oilseeds. This small step towards reversing the trend and, instead, enhancing integrated diversity has to be good for everybody.”

Dr Smith said Boots-Alliance was keen to find “green” alternatives to use in their cosmetics in place of petro-chemical based ingredients. Rosemary extracts have been shown to maintain “activity and integrity for longer”, helping to ensure a longer shelf life and guarantee quality right to the bottom of the pot, even over a long period of use.

A second application is in the production of polyolephins; these are ‘plastics’ such as polyethylene, used for flexible plastic bags and all types of food packaging and polypropylene, used in stiffer food packaging such as microwavable dinners. AOs are vital both during manufacture, then subsequently to maintain structure and durability during the product’s lifetime.

This research could have a considerable impact on the way future plastics are made. Not only is there potential for improving manufacture of these materials, but it paves the way for a fully sustainable production of a new generation of degradable and bio-based plastics. Potentially, rosemary AOs will work as well as, or better than the synthetic AOs currently used, such as BHT and BHA (AKA E321 and E320 when used in foods). Knowledge gained from the initial work with polyolefins will be transferable to future production of more sustainable plastics.

The project will also test the use of rosemary AOs in the production of bio-lubricants. Dr Smith said there was increasing interest in this area. It is hoped eventually to produce products that are fully ‘natural and sustainable. Tests conducted in fairly harsh environments have been positive and shown that bio-lubricants don’t break down and that they can be used very successfully. They are also far less environmentally damaging during a spillage, compared to the toxic oil based lubricants.

Further information is available from Dr Lydia Smith, or through press consultant Ellee Seymour on 01353 648564, or 07939 811961.