What uses are there for waste chip fat or residues from biodiesel production? Dr. Birgit Heinze, research scientist and project manager at BRAIN, and her team are addressing such questions within the framework of the ZeroCarb- FP Innovation Alliance. Their research focuses on developing high-quality lubricant additives from biogenic waste streams.
In the context of the ZeroCarbFP Innovation Alliance, BRAIN AG has been collaborating with FUCHS Schmierstoffe GmbH in Mannheim since July 2013. FUCHS is the world’s largest independent lubricant producer and develops, produces and sells lubricants as well as related specialities for almost all areas of application and sectors. As FUCHS does not own any oil wells or mineral oil refineries the company is free to explore new sources of raw materials and manufacturing methods. Its current product portfolio comprises more than 10,000 products for motor vehicles, industrial facilities, machines and metal processing procedures, amongst other areas, and will soon be expanded to further quality characteristics. At present FUCHS and BRAIN - together with other partners - are collaborating on the development of enzymatic synthesis processes for the production of high-quality lubricant additives based on carbon-rich secondary and waste streams. These innovative, ideally biodegradable additives as well as functional base fluids are not simply intended as a substitute for fossil raw materials. The bottom line is a stable and efficient synthesis process which provides an ecological advantage over classic chemical options – this will finally provide FUCHS with a competitive edge.
Waste edible fats and oils, animal fats, residues from biodiesel production such as glycerine, fatty acids and fatty acid methyl esters or lignocellulose (the cell wall of lignified plants) and numerous other sources may be considered as raw materials for this research approach. Alongside BRAIN and FUCHS, Emery Oleochemicals GmbH and Bioeton Deutschland GmbH implement BRAIN’s biocatalytic approach on an industrial scale and provide the carbon-rich waste products, respectively.
“FUCHS is constantly searching for innovations and new or improved product properties, such as flow properties and stability, a general reduction of friction or wear. Key factors are molecules in the form of long-chain fatty acids. Many of these fatty acids are known to us and their properties are well documented,” comments Dr. Birgit Heinze, the research scientist and project manager at BRAIN who is responsible for this particular ZeroCarb- FP project part.
Lubricants with special molecules are used as sophisticated construction elements. They reduce the friction between components, prevent wear, transmit forces in a low noise and energy conserving manner and provide protection against overheating or corrosion. Lubricants consist of approximately 95 per cent functional fluid and gain their specific properties through the addition of additives. In Germany alone, around one million tonnes of lubricants are used each year, whilst the proportion of biolubricants is currently only 3 to 4 per cent.
Interest in lubricants based on renewable raw materials and carbon-rich waste streams is growing due to the recent shift towards bioeconomy. Biogenic resources are not simply an option to reduce our dependency on petrochemical raw materials; they may also generally be advantageous for people, the environment and the economy. An important focus is on innovations which reduce waste and secondary streams, do not require complex purification processes and finally reduce energy requirements. New and unconventional research and development work is necessary to develop biogenic lubricant additives – this definitively is the aim of the collaboration of FUCHS Lubricants GmbH, Emery Oleochemicals GmbH and BRAIN AG within the framework of the ZeroCarbFP Alliance.
Lubricants made of waste chip fat
At present, ZeroCarbFP project partners focus on producing innovative lubricant additives from used frying fat. This is intended to close a resource cycle by ecologically advantageous means. Bioeton Deutschland GmbH is providing raw material in the form of fatty acids from waste edible oils whilst BRAIN takes care of the enzymatic synthesis. FUCHS is testing possible options and Emery Oleochemicals GmbH is going to upscale the reaction for industrial production.
Having established an optimal process, industrial scale production can be started and FUCHS will be provided with a new additive to be included in its product portfolio. This last step will still take some years of work with the pilot phase of the ZeroCarbFP project due to begin in 2019.
BRAIN had already established the synthesis of a first lubricant additive by the summer of 2014. At quite an early stage, the team was also able to vary the source and quality of the raw material. Having started with pure substances to establish the basis of enzymatic synthesis, Heinze’s team made great progress during the course of the ZeroCarbFP project to successfully use fatty acid composites from waste edible oil.
In the current ZeroCarbFP development phase, Emery Oleochemicals GmbH is setting up large scale production of the desired products. Meanwhile, BRAIN is already working on the next target molecule for FUCHS. Additionally, product samples of different batches are being analysed by FUCHS to establish important biocatalytic process parameters such as pH, effects of temperature or substrate concentration during the development phase. Further on, reaction conditions are set up by Birgit Heinze and her team to enable the provision of product quantities at a three-digit gram scale to their project partners for required lubricant tests.
Following this, there are further parameters to be tested, such as their behaviour over time as well as their friction and wear values. FUCHS informs the BRAIN research team whenever any improvements are required, thus ensuring a successive optimisation of processes.
“During the research phase we were able to produce lubricant additives at a kilogram scale to be used in the first application tests at FUCHS. To this end, we initially had to produce the new enzyme in a fermenter. However, we want to further increase enzyme production in order to switch the process over to an industrial scale in near future,” comments Heinze.
New knowledge about sewage sludge
The ZeroCarbFP research phase from 2013 to 2016 was dedicated to research on lubricant additives based on waste edible fats and was realized in close collaboration with another ZeroCarbFP project. To this end, BRAIN cooperated with Emschergenossenschaft Essen to work on the development of lubricant additives based on substrates found in sewage. At BRAIN, selected oil-forming organisms were cultivated in sewage or industrial effluents. The generated biomass may be used for energy production or as industrial raw materials for the production of high-performance lubricant additives. BRAIN also successfully established a two-stage process at laboratory scale and demonstrated – as proof of concept – a sequence of procedures from wastewater stream to the extracted oil. The project ended with the ZeroCarbFP research phase of 2016, fundamental knowledge gained through this research is now available for continued use. The microorganisms identified and cultivated by the group headed by Dr. Renate Schulze – project manager and platform coordinator of the BioArchives/Strains & Genomes – have already been successfully used for screening for new enzymes at BRAIN.
Dr Birgit Heinze
Dr. Birgit Heinze studied Biochemistry at the University of Greifswald as well as the Universities of Lund and Stockholm in Sweden. In 2008, she passed her PhD in enzyme development for Henkel KGaA in the department of Prof. Dr. Uwe Borscheuer at the University of Greifswald. She has been working as a research scientist and project manager at BRAIN AG since October 2008 being responsible for the biochemical characterization and optimisation of process technology of biocatalysts to be transferred from laboratory to industrial production scale.