SUCCESS STORY #4: VITO
Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) is an independent Flemish research organization located in Belgium with the goal to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. The organization covers several subjects: sustainable chemistry, sustainable materials, sustainable land use, sustainable health, and sustainable energy. In total, VITO has nearly 1,000 employees with 45 different nationalities.
Dr Yamini Satyawali is working in the team PROBIO at the unit Separation and conversion technology (SCT). The team is composed of 20 people and focuses on bioprocess intensification and mild biomass processing. Enzymatic process intensification is one of the research topics in this team. Process intensification consists of concepts aiming at productivity increase and sustainable separation, while preserving and improving selectivity and product quality. Significant improvements are targeted by redesigning existing production schemes into more efficient ones. This often involves integrating a separation step during the enzymatic reaction resulting in a more efficient and economical process. Different strategies to address potential drawbacks of enzymatic processes such as substrate and/or product inhibition, unfavourable equilibria, unwanted product (bio)transformation/elimination, are investigated and implemented. The areas of applications are cosmetics, food, and feed, pharmaceutical, etc.
Dr Satyawali specified that apart from efficient processes, the availability of bio-resources is an important point to address in the full value chain as it contributes strongly towards the green labelling of the final products.
What does innovation represent to the company?
VITO is an application-oriented research organization and is positioned between the academia and industry. VITO provides technological innovations that facilitate the transition to a more sustainable world. For VITO, innovation is driven by creating a positive impact on the society and environment. Safety, enhanced energy & resource efficiency, and minimization (ideally elimination) of toxic waste are the highest priorities.
Why does VITO participate in the INCITE project?
Yamini mentioned that there was a gap in enzymatic production of emollient esters containing short chain alcohol at commercial scale, even though there is enough precedence in literature for its successful synthesis in the laboratory. Therefore, in 2014, VITO initiated an idea to develop a solvent free enzymatic synthesis process for short chain alcohol esters integrated with membrane technology (Pervaporation) for water removal. This led to the start of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship O&O COOPERATIVE PLUS Catalisti project “LipaMetics”. Lipametics consortium consisted of VITO as the knowledge partner with Oleon and 2 other companies as the industrial partners. This project investigated solvent-free enzymatic synthesis of 4 types of esters. VITO developed a kilogram scale integrated process in the laboratory and provided > 10 kg of the product for application testing. Towards the final phase of Lipametics, Oleon started Pilot investigations for the most promising candidate “isopropyl palmitate” synthesis at 200 L scale at their Oelegem site in Belgium. Translating the results from lab to an industrial setting requires some extra effort both from a technological and economic point of view. Therefore, in 2018 (when LipaMetics ended) VITO again initiated a proposal together with Oleon and five other European partners from Germany, Italy and France. This collaboration resulted in the grant of Horizon 2020 Spire project INCITE. Besides investigating the unanswered questions from Lipametics, INCITE is focusing on broadening the scope of ester products.
How are the first trials on the enzymatic esterification process of oleochemicals going?
VITO is investigating broad range of esters in INCITE. Yamini, who is also the scientific coordinator of INCITE, mentioned that they are satisfied with the project’s results. Since it is a solvent free reaction, high product concentrations are obtained. VITO has provided samples of laboratory produced esters for testing to Oleon. She also highlighted the excellent collaboration in the project as direct involvement of industry in the project helps to set the relevant benchmarks and enables the comparison of product specs and process against the existing standards.