Biosurfactant process engineering and a new era of white unit operations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Chem Eng and Analytical Science


The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak from the Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico illustrate the twin compromises made when we exploit petroleum and its derived products: Firstly, the extreme environment where the leak occurred is a symptom of petroleum oil's finite supply and its increasingly expensive production. Secondly, chemicals and products made out of petroleum, including the 6.6 million litres of dispersants used to manage the spill, tend to be toxic and persistent in the environment. Biosurfactants are the various chemicals produced by nature to help change the surfaces that occur between things - for example, the stickiness forces in a new born baby's scrunched up lungs are weakened by biosurfactants and enable her to breathe in for the first time, and other remarkable things. Biosurfactants produced through fermentation have the potential to outperform traditional surfactants for many tasks, such as cleaning up after oil spills, decontamination ground left toxic by old factories, improving the quality of personal care products like face creams or household products like laundry powders. Not only this, they are also fundamentally more sustainable through their whole life from when they are made to to when they are disposed of. However, the cost of production of biosurfactants is currently far too high to make their widespread use possible - by weight they are ten or a hundred times more expensive to buy than gold. This is because the currently available fermentation production capacity is based around old reactor technology. This research will advance the process engineering science underlying the high cost of biosurfactant production and deliver a coordinated set of solutions which will enable commercial viability, and therefore more widespread exploitation, of biosurfactants.Based on this success, the research group will also work to apply this way of adding new engineering to reduce production cost to a wider range of what could be very useful biologically produced materials, chemicals and fuels and help make them become everyday things like petrol and washing powders are today.

Planned Impact

The proposed work will have impact across the four sectors - Knowledge, People, Economy and Society. Each of these is considered in turn below with the key beneficiaries identified and the way in which they will benefit explained. A. Knowledge (i) Future generation process engineers: The Case for Support details how the academic community will benefit from knowledge created during the project. However, one of the enduring outcomes of this project will be the secondary impact of this knowledge. The aspiration is for this project to lead to the first comprehensive undergraduate textbook on white unit operations from which future generations of academics and industrialist will shape their understanding. (ii) The public understanding of science: The popular conceptualization of science and engineering as an exciting field which delivers clear benefits will be partly informed through the nature and marketing of many of the consumer products which will be affected by this project. B. People (i) MPG alumni: The project will directly train up the 3 PDRAs and 2 PhDs funded by the project into researchers highly skilled in an engineering field of growing importance. (ii) CEAS alumni: CEAS is the runs the largest undergraduate chemical engineering programme in the UK and currently some 250 undergraduates enrol on it each year. This project will help support the continuation of pilot scale undergraduate laboratories using CASTLE facilities, giving students a unique semi-industrial learning experience and support the improved teaching of bioprocessing. (iii) Employees of consortium companies: The improved economic performance of their employers brought about by this project will directly lead to improved job security and enhanced career prospect. C. Economy (i) Increased profitability for consortium partners: This project will lead to improved margins, increased market size and greater market share. (ii) Manufacturing growth in North West England: This area has been the traditional home of chemical manufacturing in the UK and this project will introduce new high value added processes which will profitably sustain this activity into the future. D. Society (i) Sustainable development: This project will lead the substitution of non-renewable, toxic and persistent petroleum derived surfactants with renewable, biocompatible and biodegradable alternatives. (ii) Quality of life: Widespread access to the novel and improved properties of biosurfactant will lead to new products offering better results and more convenience. (iii) Industrial biotechnology policy: Engaging with professional bodies and the media through the course of this project will lead to a better informed discussion about these growth areas of manufacturing and the application of new science through biotechnology.


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Bages-Estopa S (2018) Production and separation of a trehalolipid biosurfactant in Biochemical Engineering Journal

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Dolman B (2017) Integrated sophorolipid production and gravity separation in Process Biochemistry

Description The project worked with five biosurfactant producing microorganisms and advanced the utilization of each. Developments were made to the understanding of foam drainage and how this relate to the biosurfactants produced, to enable engineering of novel production processes. This included new fundamental insight into surfactant transport processes within Plateau borders, lamellae and surfaces of foams. Translation of insight into new understanding of competitive adsorption processes in foams and use thereof for separations. Integration of foam separation techniques with bioreactors.
Exploitation Route Working with industrial collaborators
Sectors Chemicals,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description The project's overall aim was to release the potential of biologically derived surfactant chemicals (biosurfactants) via the application of smart process engineering to overcome traditional production cost barriers. The focus on bioreactor design and performance led to methods to increase production yield by continuous separation of biosurfactant products from the bioreactor. The project focused on foaming based separations in the first instance. Further development of this concept by project team members led to the invention of a novel gravity separation method, specifically for sophorolipid biosurfactants, which was patented worldwide from 2016 onwards (patent US20190241917A1). There is great demand in many industries for green biosurfactants and this invention provided the foundation for the creation of a spin out company, Holiferm, to meet this. The founders, James Winterburn and Ben Dolman, were awarded the 2018 BBSRC Innovator of the Year Award and their company has gone from strength-to-strength in realising the project's vision. Holiferm's patented integrated gravity separation and fermentation technology is a plug and play system that quadruples fermentation process productivity, reducing production costs by more than 50% and enabling low cost production of biosurfactants: renewable, biodegradable and mild alternatives to the petrochemical derived surfactants used in household cleaning, laundry and personal care products. In 2021 the UK's Clean Growth Fund announced that they have invested in Holiferm as their first foray into biotechnology. This investment, alongside that from Rhapsody Venture Partners and ICOS Capital, will support Holiferm in opening a new commercial production plant that will produce over 1,000 tonnes of biosurfactants a year for global supply, including for their existing customers and distributors, such as MixCleanGreen, Starbrands Group, Azelis and Eurosyn. The new investment will also support their launch of new biosurfactant products and R&D work with BASF. 2022 began with Holiferm collecting the keys to their new 90,000 sq ft manufacturing site at Wallasey, UK. This will be the UK's first commercial sophorolipid manufacturing plant and in the process will be creating a total of 50 new jobs across the North West of England this year.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Chemicals,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic

Description EPSRC Prosperity Partnerships
Amount £3,029,905 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R00482X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 10/2022
Description Industrial funding
Amount £69,000 (GBP)
Organisation Invista (UK) 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2014 
End 08/2015
Description Industrial funding
Amount £212,000 (GBP)
Organisation Unilever 
Department Unilever Research and Development
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 09/2018
Description Industrial funding
Amount £40,000 (GBP)
Organisation Unilever 
Department Unilever Research and Development
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2012 
End 12/2012
Description Industrial funding
Amount £151,000 (GBP)
Organisation Unilever 
Department Unilever Research and Development
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2013 
End 11/2014
Description Industrial funding
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Organisation Future Blends 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2015 
End 03/2016
Description Multidisciplinary approach for a novel sustainable production route of biosurfactants to be used as antimicrobial agents
Amount £22,531 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 06/2017
Description Proof of principal for novel foam coalescer bed
Amount £4,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 05/2017
Description Synbiochem
Amount £10,085,961 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/M017702/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2014 
End 10/2019
Description TSB - Nutrition for Life
Amount £200,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 101733 
Organisation TSB Bank plc 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2014 
End 12/2016
Description BBSRC Synbiochem 
Organisation University of Manchester
Department Manchester Institute of Biotechnology MIB
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have contributed biochemical engineering scale up to this collaboration. We have organised a number of meetings at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology which have contributed to it.
Collaborator Contribution N/A
Impact Academic/Industrial meeting: Hands-On Bioprocessing II. 21 April 2015, Manchester Institute of Biotechnology.
Start Year 2015
Description Research collaboration with Plymouth Marine Laboratory 
Organisation Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution PML was working on exploring commercialization of the bank of microorganisms but did not not the facilities to scale up production. PML provided the organism of interest and a PhD project in Manchester explored biosurfactant production from it. A contract was agreed between both parties.
Collaborator Contribution PML provided the organism of interest. PML co-supervised the project and provided expert advice and test facilities.
Impact A PhD thesis and one paper have been published.
Start Year 2012
Description Science Made Simple 
Organisation Science Made Simple
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Project researchers took part in engagement training provided by SMS and helped SMS understand their research area for development of new science show for schools.
Collaborator Contribution SMS contributed their leading expertise and contacts withing schools science public engagement, lead process of writing show script and building props.
Impact Presentation of show to schools
Start Year 2011
Description UK Fluids Fluid Mechanics of Cleaning and Decontamination (FMCD) SIG 
Organisation UK Fluids Network
Department Fluid mechanics of cleaning and decontamination
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Joined this recently instituted SIG
Collaborator Contribution None yet
Impact None
Start Year 2017
Description There are provided methods for the production of lipids such as sophorolipids. Also provided are apparatus for use in said production. 
IP Reference WO2017220957 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2017
Licensed Commercial In Confidence
Impact ongoing
Description Holiferm develops holistically improved fermentation technology for massive fermentation and downstream cost reductions. The technology uses gravity separation to recover insoluble lipids as they are produced by fermentation. It has demonstrated gravity separation technology, in combination with an enhanced fermentation technique, to pilot scale with sophorolipid biosurfactants, reaching titers >800 g/l and productivites >5 g/l/h, more than double state of the art, and estimated to reduce production costs by >40%. Holiferm offer licences of sophorolipid production technology for reduced production costs. 
Year Established 2018 
Impact 2018 - Selected to join the ICURe Innovation to Commercialisation programme, funded by Innovate UK and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), allowing access up to £35,000 for business development . 2018 - Founders won the BBSRC early career innovator of the year 2018 award for their work on integrated production and gravity separation of biosurfactants.
Description Manchester Science Spectacular 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Whole team delivered a day long interactive bubble based station at the Manchester Science Spectacular, held at the Manchester Museum 25 Oct 2014. Activities for children and adults to prompt discussion of research topics and themes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Science Made Simple show Birkenhead School 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact First run of new Teenage Bubble Show developed collaboratively with Science Made Simple. Delivered to two KS3 audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017