GRAIN | 11 August 2006 | BIO-IPR (1997-2009)
TITLE: Ethiopian 'green
chemical' plant could weed out polluting glue AUTHOR: Clive
Cookson PUBLICATION: The Australian DATE: 10 August 2006
The Australian | August 10, 2006
'GREEN CHEMICAL' PLANT COULD WEED OUT POLLUTING
The plant produces safe epoxy resins, writes Clive Cookson
The dry valleys of eastern Ethiopia are home to a tall and rather tatty weed called vernonia. Its shiny, black seeds yield an extraordinary oil - potentially a living source of epoxy compounds that are currently produced entirely from petrochemicals.
An agreement signed this month by the Ethiopian Government and Vernique Biotech, a British-based start-up company, aims to commercialise vernonia oil as a "green chemical". With worldwide epoxy sales estimated at $US15 billion ($19.7 billion) a year in the plastics, paints and adhesives industries, "vernonia has the potential to become the industrial soya bean of the 21st century", one of the company's co-founders, Paul McClory, says.
McClory, an environmental businessman, says vernonia oil avoids the polluting volatile organic compounds associated with petrochemical epoxy sources, without sacrificing technical performance. It will compete economically, once large-scale cultivation is under way.
The agreement signed by Ethiopia and Vernique is one of the few deals negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. In exchange for access to one of the country's genetic resources, the company will pay a mix of licence fees, royalties and a share of profits to the Ethiopian Government over the next 10 years.
In addition, hundreds of local farmers will be paid to grow vernonia on land that is too poor and arid to produce good food crops.
The director-general of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, says: "With petrochemical products becoming more and more expensive and environmentally less and less acceptable, I think benefits will indeed accrue to Ethiopia. For better or for worse, we are in this together and I am confident it will be for the better."
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the US Department of Agriculture carried out extensive research into vernonia, which it saw as a potentially important industrial crop for US farmers, and more than 50 US patent applications were filed. But that effort was abandoned when the USDA concluded that vernonia would not thrive in the US.
The problem was that vernonia needed a pattern of day and night found only within 20 degrees of the equator, a specialist in African agriculture and the other co-founder of Vernique, Michael Dobell, says. The company decided, therefore, to grow vernonia on its home territory in collaboration with the Ethiopians. Cultivation started in 2004, producing a small crop of seeds last year.
"We are going to grow about 200ha this season and we should get 1 to 2 tonnes of vernonia oil per hectare," Dobell says. "Within a few years we expect to be growing thousands of hectares of vernonia in Ethiopia."
Vernique is working with scientists in Britain to develop the most promising applications of vernonia oil. One collaborator is Jim Howell, a professor of chemistry at Keele University.
"One project was to make adhesive resins from rapeseed oil - but to do that you have to epoxidise the oil, which is a decidedly non-green process," Howell says. "Vernonia oil is already naturally epoxidised."
He is embarking on a collaborative project with Eastman, the US-based chemicals company, to develop vernonia oil as a base for paints.
Meanwhile, a British biotechnology entrepreneur, Tony Atkinson, is working on what he sees as an exciting range of pharmaceutical applications for vernonia oil. The most immediate one will be for the skin, to speed up wound healing and alleviate psoriasis.
The oil's epoxy groups - three-member molecular rings with an oxygen atom linked to two carbon atoms - seem to seal and stitch together broken skin through a cross-linking reaction, in a process similar to the way epoxy glue works.
In the longer run, Vernique plans to develop a drug delivery system based on vernonia oil. There is evidence it can act as a "slow-release" agent for drugs in the body, Atkinson says, or form nano-scale "vesicles" to carry drugs across the blood-brain barrier, for example in chemotherapy for brain tumours.
No one knows why a biological mechanism to make large quantities of epoxide evolved in vernonia but not in other plants. It may protect against disease or desiccation.
A biologist at Alemaya University in Ethiopia, Mohammed Abdella, went in search of wild vernonia recently in the Erer valley - once a stronghold of the species - and could not find a single plant. Farmers told him that they had eradicated the weeds to plant cereals.
"It was a shocking experience to find that such a valuable plant has been wiped out," he told McClory in an email. "If you and Michael (Dobell) had not taken the initiative to cultivate wild vernonia in Ethiopia over the last two years, we would have totally lost this species."