From Crop to Cream

Biotechnology unlocks more renewable feedstocks for the personal care industry.

Diols are a class of chemicals with a variety of applications in the chemical industry. One member of this diol class, 1,3-butylene glycol (1,3-BG), is a high-performance option for cosmetics and personal care formulations and serves many different functions, including humectant, emollient and solvent.

Traditionally, petroleum-based butylene glycol has been widely used in the cosmetics and personal care industry; however, recent advances in the development of bio-based production processes have led to the successful production of a natural butylene glycol alternative.

This article will discuss the general advantages of bio-based production pathways, the role of biotechnology in their development, and how it is making sustainability more achievable in the cosmetics industry.

A Petrochemical Tradition

The majority of modern, industrial chemicals are produced using petrochemicals, such as crude oil or natural gas, as starting materials.

Crude oil and gas are the building blocks used for the production of more than 100 large-volume intermediate chemicals that supply the chemical industry.

With 80 million tons of industrial chemicals produced using petroleum-based feedstocks, valued at over $2 trillion, these chemicals permeate nearly every aspect of daily human life ranging from concrete to clothing to cosmetics.1

While petrochemical-based industrial chemicals contribute positively to the quality of human life and provide a foundation for many of the technological advances during the past century, reliance on petrochemicals has some significant drawbacks.

One of the biggest and most publicized problems is that they contribute to the production of greenhouse gases, which have been linked to a global increase in the temperature of the planet.

Generally, the process and refinement steps required for petrochemical-based manufacturing can also produce toxic waste products that can be harmful to animal and plant life.

To address these issues, the petrochemical industry is implementing sustainability practices that reduce energy usage and recycle raw materials.

However, the reliance on a non-renewable energy source as a foundation and the associated release of greenhouse gases resulting from its usage remain problematic and put a finite limit on the amount of time the current level of petrochemical production-related environmental stressors can continue unmitigated.

The Rise of Biotechnology

The imperative undertaken by scientists into investigating ways to overcome the challenges associated with petrochemical-based production processes is decades old.

While many alternatives have been considered, one promising solution relies on bio-based production processes for the production of chemicals to replace traditional petrochemical means of production.

Some of these bio-based production processes use tiny organisms, called microbes, which are too small to be seen by the naked human eye.

The term “microbe” is often used to refer to many different types of tiny organisms and commonly include single-celled organisms called bacteria.

While many people tend to think of bacteria in reference to pathogens that cause stomach or lung illnesses, the majority of bacteria are harmless to humans, critical to life on earth, and have been used as tools for many biotechnology applications, such as the use of bio-based renewable resources for chemical production.

Before the rise of biotechnology, microbes had historically been used by humans for fermentation processes that produced both food and beverages from chocolate to beer and wine.

In the 20th Century, microbes are used to produce a variety of different chemicals for a wide range of applications.

For example, during World War II, fermentation was used for industrial scale production of penicillin, a pharmaceutical in the class of drugs called antibiotics.

This antibiotic revolutionized medical treatment of harmful bacterial infections and helped kickstart the discovery of additional antibiotics that have dramatically improved medical treatment and increased the life expectancy of humans worldwide.

This success and many others helped spawn the current era of bioproduction including for fuels, as precursors for plastic polymers, and a multitude of pharmaceutical classes dependent upon bio-based bacterial fermentation.

Creating bacteria to produce these chemicals is a challenging, labor-intensive process, and one that requires extensive understanding and manipulation of a bacteria’s normal metabolism.

One bacteria in particular, Escherichia coli (E. coli), has become one of the favorite “model” systems for bio-based production pathways. E. coli has a rapid growth rate, low production cost and methods for high-cell density fermentation that are relatively easy to develop.

In addition, during the past 50 years, the detailed development of advanced techniques for modifying the E. coli genome, which can involve the introduction, removal or additional fine-tuning of one or many genes with the precision of an engineer, has made E. coli an ideal platform for the industrial-scale production of a number of chemicals, including those that occur in nature and those that don’t.

Metabolic Engineering

The ability of bio-based production process using genetically engineered E. coli to produce new and valuable chemicals has attracted a lot of interest for the chemicals industry. In addition, these production processes use renewable raw materials, such as plant-derived starch, sucrose, cellulose, lignocellulose, glucose, sucrose and xylose, as fermentation feedstocks.

Thus, bio-based production processes are inherently more sustainable than traditional petrochemical-based processes and bio-based production processes have been shown to result in a reduced environmental footprint due to reduced energy usage and emissions.

One class of chemicals wherein this approach has been particularly successful is the diols, which include 1,3-propanediol (1,3-PDO), 2,3-butylene glycol, 1,4-butanediol (1,4-BDO), and more recently, 1,3-BG.8 This collection of chemicals are used in a number of different applications.

For example, 1,3-PDO is best known for its role in the synthesis of a polyester used in textiles and 1,3-BG is used as a humectant and solvent for cosmetics and personal care formulations.

Petrochemical-based diols are produced on the scale of multiple millions of tons a year globally, thus replacing production with a bio-based, sustainable alternative could have huge implications for reducing the environmental footprint of the petrochemical-based production processes.

While the positive environmental effect of these bio-based production processes is enticing, bio-based chemicals ultimately must make economic sense for widespread adoption in the industry.

Genomatica, Inc. has developed a sustainable production process for efficient production of 1,4-BDO, which is used for the production of solvents, fine chemicals, textiles, and plastics, from sucrose.

The manufacturing process is efficient, produces high value 1,4-BDO, and reduces the energy consumption and CO2 emissions associated with production.

There are other examples of bio-based chemicals, such as 1,3-PDO, that have been widely adapted in the marketplace.

Further development of additional bio-based chemicals, produced using sustainable plant-derived feedstocks, has the potential to transform the chemical industry into one that enables sustainability and reduces the environmental footprint.

Sustainable 1,3-BG

Genomatica, Inc. recently created engineered E. coli to produce bio-based 1,3-BG, which has traditionally relied on petrochemical feedstocks.

This bio-based 1,3-BG, called Brontide, is derived from a sustainable and renewable sugar fermentation process that uses a plant-derived feedstock entirely sourced in Europe.

After the fermentation stage, a purification and distillation step completes the process to produce high purity, cosmetic grade natural butylene glycol.

Brontide natural butylene glycol’s unique fermentation process produces a high performing 1,3-BG that does not contain heavy metals. Clinical test showed no skin fatigue, no skin irritation and no skin sensitization.

Demonstrating the same humectant, solvent and emollient functionality as traditional BG, Brontide natural butylene glycol, however, begins with natural sugar, not carcinogenic acetaldehyde as petro-BG does, and also reduces global warming contribution by more than 50% compared to petroleum-based butylene glycol.9

As the sustainability movement continues to grow and researchers engineer additional bio-based pathways for increasingly complex chemicals, the chemical industry has the potential to seriously diminish the amount that humans rely on petrochemicals to maintain their quality of life.

Successes in this area, like that seen with Brontide natural butylene glycol and other bio-based chemicals, represent a concerted commitment to making the cosmetics and personal care industry more sustainable.

The ability to manufacture Brontide and its adoption by cosmetics and personal care formulators has the potential to continue that commitment to sustainability, reduce reliance on non-renewable resources, and diminish the production of greenhouse gases.


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From Crop to Cream

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