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2004 Small Business Award

Jeneil Biosurfactant Company


Rhamnolipid Biosurfactant: A Natural, Low-Toxicity Alternative to Synthetic Surfactants


Innovation and Benefits: Billions of pounds of surfactants are used each year to lubricate, clean, or reduce undesired foaming in industrial applications. Jeneil Biosurfactant Company developed biobased surfactants that are less toxic and more biodegradable than conventional surfactants. Jeneil makes its biosurfactants using a simple fermentation.

Summary of Technology: Surfactants are chemicals that reduce the surface tension of water. Surfactants are widely used in soaps, laundry detergents, dishwashing liquids, and many personal care products, such as shampoos. Other important uses are in lubricants, emulsion polymerization, textile processing, mining flocculates, petroleum recovery, and wastewater treatment. Most currently used surfactants are derived from petroleum feedstocks. The total worldwide chemical surfactant consumption in the year 2000 has been estimated to be approximately 36 billion pounds. Many of these chemical surfactants pose significant environmental risks because they form harmful compounds from incomplete biodegradation in water or soil.

Jeneil Biosurfactant Company has successfully produced a series of rhamnolipid biosurfactant products, making them commercially available and economical for the first time. These biosurfactant products provide good emulsification, wetting, detergency, and foaming properties, along with very low toxicity. They are readily biodegradable and leave no harmful or persistent degradation products. Their superior qualities make them suitable for many diverse applications.

Rhamnolipid biosurfactant is a naturally occurring extracellular glycolipid that is found in the soil and on plants. Jeneil produces this biosurfactant commercially in controlled, aerobic fermentations using particular strains of the soil bacterium, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The biosurfactant is recovered from the fermentation broth after sterilization and centrifugation, then purified to various levels to fit intended applications.

Rhamnolipid biosurfactants are a much less toxic and more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional synthetic or petroleum-derived surfactants. Rhamnolipid biosurfactants are also "greener" throughout their life cycle. Biosurfactant production uses feedstocks that are innocuous and renewable compared to those used for synthetic or petroleum-derived surfactants. In addition, their production requires less resources, employs processes that are less complex and less capital- and energy-intensive, and does not require the use and disposal of hazardous substances.

Some current uses of rhamnolipid biosurfactant are in consumer cleaning products, in solutions to clean contact lenses, and in an agricultural fungicide as the active ingredient. These biosurfactants are also extremely effective in precluding harmful environmental impacts and remediating environmental pollution. For example, rhamnolipid biosurfactants can facilitate removal of hydrocarbons or heavy metals from soil, clean crude oil tanks, and remediate sludge; often they can facilitate recovery of a significant amount of the hydrocarbons. In many applications, these biosurfactants can replace less environmentally friendly synthetic or petroleum-derived surfactants. Further, these biosurfactants have excellent synergistic activity with many synthetic surfactants and, when formulated together in a cosurfactant system, can allow a substantial reduction in the synthetic surfactant component.

Although rhamnolipid biosurfactants have been the subject of considerable research, they had previously been produced only on a small scale in laboratories. Jeneil Biosurfactant Company, in conjunction with its associated company, Jeneil Biotech, Inc., has commercialized the rhamnolipid technology by developing efficient bacterial strains, as well as cost-effective processes and equipment for commercial-scale production. Jeneil's facility in Saukville, WI produces the surfactants.

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