Prateek Mahalwar from the start-up BIOWEG on microbeads made from bacterial cellulose, which are biodegradable and can replace microplastics in many products.
Microplastics are a global problem. The tiny particles, which are invisible to the naked eye, can now be found everywhere – in rivers, in the sea, in the ground and even in the Arctic. Many of these fossil plastic particles end up in the environment via cosmetics and cleaning agents. But other synthetic polymers used as thickeners, stabilizers, film formers and emulsifiers also endanger ecosystems. The Quakenbrück-based start-up BIOWEGwants to change that. The team around founder and managing director Prateek Mahalwar develops cellulose-based microbeads for cosmetics and cleaning agents. The cellulose is obtained by fermentation using bacteria and can replace fossil-based substances and other synthetic polymers in numerous products.
What potential do the pearls have for the bioeconomy?
Personal and household care products today contain synthetic, non-biodegradable, fossil fuel-based polymers and microplastics that play a major role in the formulation of these everyday products. In contrast, the microbeads developed by BIOWEG are made from bacterial cellulose obtained by fermentation. For this fermentation we use side streams of carbon substrates derived from food production and agriculture. Our microbeads are highly functional and are in no way inferior to microbeads made from synthetic polymers. They absorb water and oil and provide sensory properties for end-use formulations. An important feature of our microbeads is their 100% biodegradability within 60 days. Last but not least, the cellulose we obtain from bacteria is pure cellulose without contamination from lignin and hemicellulose, which also has a significantly lower ecological balance compared to vegetable cellulose. It is therefore a valuable ingredient for the consumer and cosmetics industry.
What makes cellulose-based capsules interesting for industrial applications?
Our microbeads are designed in such a way that different particle sizes and shapes can be chosen according to customer requirements. The beads are functionalized using physical and surface modification techniques and strictly adhere to the principles of green chemistry. Microbeads also have very different densities and are therefore used for different applications. In personal care products, microbeads are used for a variety of purposes, including drug delivery, matting, bulking, film-forming, exfoliating, and viscosity control. Our microbeads are a direct replacement for petroleum based microbeads with the added benefit of being fully biodegradable in a short period of time.
How big is the industry's interest in bio-based microbeads?
Industry is actively looking for substitutes for petroleum. We have up to 18 clients working with us. Some contacts are still at an early stage. We are about to enter into a development partnership with other customers.
At the beginning of the year, Bioweg received a multi-million euro grant from the European Union via the EIC Accelerator to develop a bio-based and biodegradable rheology modifier to replace petroleum-based acrylic (co-)polymers – i.e. microplastics – in cosmetic products. What will you use the funding for?
As part of the EIC project, we will use the grants to reduce production costs, test automation, improve our surface modification techniques, and share larger batches of samples with our partners for production and stability testing. We also want to build a scale-up plant in the coming year. We are also looking for locations for the construction of such a plant in Germany.
What is the current status of development?
With the help of the pre-pilot plant in Quakenbrück, we are currently providing the industry with samples on a kilogram scale and are working on reducing the process costs.