Just like cellulose, lignin and fats, proteins are renewable raw materials. Their potential for the chemical industry remains largely untapped. Research teams at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV are collaborating with partners to shift away from petroleum and make more use of renewable raw materials.
Although proteins from vegetable sources played a key role in the chemical industry a hundred years ago, as a binding agent or adhesive for example, their use has been in decline since the boom of the petrochemical industry. The partners involved in the TeFuProt project, the name being short for technofunctional protein, are aiming to change all this and obtain proteins for industrial applications from agricultural waste products.
The aim of this bioeconomy approach is to counteract the scarcity and long-term price increase in fossil raw materials and use renewal raw materials as an alternative to petroleum.
Rapeseed as a source of protein
The processing of agricultural raw materials such as rapeseed results in large quantities of protein. These proteins are a by-product of rapeseed oil recovery, a process that presses oil out of the seed. Protein-containing by-products, so-called rapeseed meal and rapeseed press-cake, are left behind.
“Up until now, this residue has been used mainly as a foodstuff in livestock farming. But this usage is limited because of the bitter sub-stances contained”, explains Andreas Fetzer, scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Freising.
Due to their functional properties, such as the ability to form foams, gels and films, and their ability to retain water, the protein fractions of the rapeseed press-cake have a huge potential for a broad range of technical applications. They are ideal as additives for paints, varnishes, adhesives, lubricants, building materials, detergents and polymers.
“The vegetable proteins are opening the door to the development of novel, sustainable, bio-based products with improved properties”, explains Fetzer. And this also reduces our dependence on fossil resources and drives forward climate-friendly production.
Chance to create breakthrough innovations
The long-term project work of the 18 partners in total has produced a series of promising products, some of which are already available as prototypes. These include biodegradable films as a packaging material for detergent pouches, for example, or as plant coverings, as well as fiberboard from production residues, and binding agents modified with rapeseed protein.
Flame-retardant insulating foams for the construction industry or molded foams for packaging, fiber protection and dye transfer inhibitors in eco-friendly laundry detergents, thickening components for lubricants or binders for lubricating lacquers and additives in universal cleaning agents for wood surfaces complete the list of innovative solutions.
“In many cases, we have successfully integrated the proteins into the products and generated properties with added value”, says the researcher. The next steps aim to optimize the preparations and get them ready for the market. The long-term aim of the partners is to replace petrochemical-based products with bio-based ones on a large scale and create added value through the use of vegetable proteins.
Image credit: Steve Douglas, Flickr/Creative Commons