Winner of the CNRS Medal of Innovation in 2014 and rewarded by the French National Research Agency (ANR) at the 8
edition of Ecotechnology Days, Claude Grison is a professor and the Director of the Laboratory of Bio-inspired Chemistry and Ecological Innovations of the University of Montpellier/CNRS/Stratoz, in the south of France. She is also the manager of innovative projects combining chemistry and ecology for the first time. These two traditionally opposed fields are actually complementary, as chemistry might become the driving force of ecological restoration.
Together with her team, she developed the first plant-derived catalysts. Designed for polluted soil remediation, they also help produce new molecules with a high added value. 25 patents were registered by the CNRS, and several degraded sites were approached: in France (Saint-Laurent le Minier, in southern France), in New Caledonia, but also in China, Greece, or Sardinia. The chemical industry is interested and several cosmetics applications are already under development.
Interview by CosmeticOBS at the Cosmetic 360 show, where Claude Grison came to present her project to the cosmetics industry players
First step: rehabilitation of contaminated ecosystems
As a university professor, I supported students preparing for a competitive examination to enter major engineering schools who were trying to answer the following question: is it possible to purify polluted systems with plants? While I was helping them with their bibliographical research, I discovered the existence of phytoextraction, which consists in extracting metals with plants, using the adaptability of plants that have managed to find solutions to survive on soils rich in metals (Palladium, Manganese, Copper, Nickel, Zinc, Chromium, or Cobalt). They constantly accumulate metals through their roots by storing them in their leaves to try and protect themselves from them.
Then, I met an ecologist specialized in this field. He attracted my attention when he presented these plants as contaminated waste: to him, this scenario was not interesting, because it meant they generated undesirable biomass. On the contrary, as a specialist of chemistry of living organisms, I thought it was an extraordinary natural phenomenon: plants can actually find a solution to survive and extract pollution from the soil. I needed to give them some value and change their status of waste. And chemistry was able to do that.
Eco-catalysis, a disruptive innovation
Phytoextraction produces plant biomass rich in metallic elements. Eco-catalysis, which my laboratory has developed, is the ability to transform the elements derived from plant biomass into catalysts for chemistry. Here, ‘catalysts’ refers to the common meaning of the term, that is, to enhancers of chemical reactions. They accelerate the speed of a reaction and help synthesize highly complex molecules. Without them, no chemical reaction would be possible.
Eco-catalysis is a disruptive innovation for several reasons. It is the first time a metallic catalyst has ever been biosourced, which was absolutely not conceivable before.
Secondly, the very principle of the catalysis we developed is different from conventional catalysis. It should be known that usually, there is only one single metallic element in a catalyst. The whole process relies on its purity. With eco-catalysis, we chose the reverse perspective: we wanted to benefit from all the metallic elements the plant provides us with to try and create synergy effects between the various types of metal present, and obtain overactivity compared to conventional catalysis… which means that in a number of well-identified chemistry mechanisms, it is possible to get better performances with eco-catalysis than with its conventional version.
Applications in the cosmetics and perfume industry
There are many of them, because numerous complex molecules put in the wrong by a European regulation (because the catalyst or reagent is toxic and harmful) are or will be banned, and there are no alternatives. Eco-catalysis can solve this, as it represents a solution to replace the substances banned by
For example, we synthesize biovanillin in one step, while traditional methods are sequenced in three steps. We gain a lot of speed and efficiency, and of course, we generate much less waste, since our catalysts are supported, which means they can be filtered, retrieved, and reused. As a result, the process is eco-responsible and minimizes the environmental impact.
Here is another example: vitamin A is a large molecule that is hard to synthesize because it requires several steps. Its market represents 3,000 tons/year. With eco-catalysis, we have brought something positive with the synthesis of a key intermediate molecule, β-ionone, which can be obtained with a plant-derived metallic catalyst at a high yield. Here again, the reaction shows much better results than traditional methods.
On the industrial level
We have several prospects, two of which can be mentioned.
We have been working with Chimex for more than two years ( NB: a subsidiary of the L’Oréal Group which designs eco-responsible processes to manufacture ingredients for fine chemistry ). They have molecules at the pilot stage.
Stratoz, a young, innovative green chemistry company, approached our laboratory and is trying to industrialize a catalyst to produce a high-scale cosmetics molecule.
Pharmacy, with the possibility of developing low-cost medicines (antiviral, anti-cancer, anti-malarial agents), and biopesticides (with ‘new generation’ insecticides) constitute other possible applications. And so does the more abstract, but no less negligible process that makes it possible to synthesize key intermediate molecules called platform molecules for the chemical industry.
For a greener chemistry with a circular economy
Green chemistry is often mentioned in debates. People talk about it a lot, it is booming, but at the end of the day, one realizes that many industrial sectors do not change their processes. And yet, we need to choose a different, more respectable chemistry that can meet the requirements of extremely strict standards and help obtain the ‘Natural’ label for the finished molecule. Now, that is a real challenge.
Learn more about ecocatalysis:
• Ecocatalysis, A New Integrated Approach to Scientific Ecology , Claude Grison, Vincent Escande, and Jacques Biton, Elsevier editions (2015), 100 pages, £39.32
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