Enlisting Enzymes for Ecoefficiency

Models of stain-fighting enzymes, displayed on clothes in a washing machine. Credit Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

We’ve been highlighting mycological innovation since the early days of this site, and our enthusiasm has yet to wane. The range of fungi-power will never cease to amaze.

Fighting Climate Change,
One Laundry Load at a Time

A Danish biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change — one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.

In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibers. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes like decay.

“There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for,” said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists.

Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures. The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for over 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union.

Enlisting enzymes to battle dirt is not a new strategy. Over thousands of years, mushrooms and their fungi cousins have evolved into masters at nourishing themselves on dying trees, fallen branches and other materials. They break down these difficult materials by secreting enzymes into their hosts. Even before anyone knew what enzymes were, they were used in brewing and cheese making, among other activities.

Novozymes and its rivals have developed a catalog of enzymes over the years, supplying them to consumer goods giants like Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

At the company’s low-slung 1960s-style campus, scientists in white lab coats and armed with miniature washing machines test new enzyme combinations on doll-size cutouts of clothing. To test a product’s stain-fighting prowess, they import stain samples from around the world, like greasy, blackened collars and yellow armpit stains.

Modern detergents contain as many as eight different enzymes. In 2016, Novozymes generated about $2.2 billion in revenue and provided enzymes for detergents including Tide, Ariel and Seventh Generation.

The quantity of enzymes required in a detergent is relatively small compared with chemical alternatives, an appealing quality for customers looking for more natural ingredients. A tenth of a teaspoon of enzymes in a typical European laundry load cuts by half the amount of soap from petrochemicals or palm oil in a detergent.

Enzymes are also well suited to helping cut energy consumption. They are often found in relatively cool environments, like forests and oceans. As a result of that low natural temperature, they do not require the heat and pressure typically used in washing machines and other laundry processes.

So consumers can reduce the temperatures on their washing machines while ensuring their shirts stay lily white. Lowering the temperature on a washing machine cycle to cold water from 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) reduces energy consumption by at least half, according to the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products, an industry group.

“We think there are a lot of systems and processes in nature that are extremely resource efficient,” said Gerard Bos, director of the global business and biodiversity program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Switzerland. “In nature, there is basically no waste. Every material gets reused.”

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