Reducing our dependence on oil does not just mean using less fuel – it means finding replacements for the thousands of petrochemicals that are routinely used in everyday household products.
Our open innovation collaboration with Liverpool University(Link opens in a new window) is doing just that. It uses by-products from crops like wheat, corn and sugar beet as the raw material in a high-tech search for organic chemicals that could replace petrochemically-derived ingredients in materials and products found in every home.
Partners in discovery
The search is on for new polymers – organic chemicals that will replace the petrochemical ingredients we use as thickeners and binding agents in products like liquid detergent and shampoo.
Unilever and the University's Centre for Materials Discovery will jointly operate the new High Throughput (HT) analysis unit and Micro Bio-Refinery (MBR), which will be the only facility of its kind in the world. The unit's three new robotic platforms and sophisticated measurement equipment allow substances to be analysed at speeds and orders of magnitude greater than previously possible – significantly increasing the probability of finding valuable new chemicals.
Another key partner is AB Sugar, the UK's largest sugar producer, who will provide by-products from sugar refining to be broken down and analysed as part of their ambition to use every part of the beet in a sustainable way. All organic matter could contain valuable bio-mass – which means that domestic waste as well as agricultural material could be put to good use, while agriculturally marginal land could be harnessed to grow crops for biomass without harming food production.
The new facility will be open access and we hope to attract other partners to use the facility – from academics and start-up bio-tech companies, to large multinationals.
Just the beginning...
While finding replacement polymers alone would achieve a massive saving of oil, the technology at the facility could also be used to find biomass sources for plastic, surfactants, and other high-value chemicals. If Unilever succeeds in replacing oil for every high-volume chemical it uses in its products, it would save around 25 million barrels of oil each year.