Surfactants are amphiphilic molecules that are used in several industrial processes and products to reduce surface and interfacial tension. Surfactants work as emulsifiers, wetting agents, and lubricants to name a few. Traditional surfactants cause a significant environmental issue as they accumulate in soil and water ecosystems. In addition, their usage in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries is limited due to their toxic nature. For these reasons, biosurfactants have gained a lot of attention as a less toxic alternative to chemical surfactants.
What are biosurfactants?
Surfactants are amphiphilic molecules that include hydrophilic and hydrophobic parts. When in liquid, they orient themselves so that the hydrophilic part is in an aqueous solution and the hydrophobic part in air or oil. Surfactants are used in many industrial processes to reduce the surface or interfacial tension of the system. Surface tension decreases up to a point when micelles start to form. This point is called critical micelle concentration.
Biosurfactants have similar functionality as their chemical counterparts, but they are biological in nature. Biosurfactants are produced by a wide range of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and yeast. The main advantage of biosurfactants is that they are environmentally friendly, less toxic, and biodegradable.
Chemical surfactants are typically classified based on the electric charge of the polar head group. Biosurfactants on the other hand are often divided based on their molecular weight to low- or high-molecular-weight. Molecules such as glycolipids and lipopeptides belong under low-molecular-weight and polysaccharides and proteins form the high-molecular-weight group.
Where biosurfactants can be used?
The use of biosurfactants has been studied in multiple different industries. Due to their non-toxic or less-toxic nature, their use in the cosmetic, food, and pharmaceutical industries is especially of interest. In the pharmaceutical and medical industries, the diverse activities of biosurfactants such as anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral have further increased their appeal. Biosurfactants are also utilized in the petroleum industry in the bioremediation of oil spills.
Susanna is an Application Scientist at Biolin Scientific. In her PhD thesis, she developed fabrication methods for a new type of inorganic-organic polymers. Microfabricated polymer chips were utilized as tool for biomolecule separation in analytical chemistry.