Cellulase and xylanase enzymes can be blended in different proportions for use in refining both virgin fiber and pulp derived from recycled paper (image: Wikimedia Commons)
Published on 05/13/2021
By Suzel Tunes | FAPESP Research for Innovation – With the support of FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE) and the Program to Support Research in the Private Sector (PAPPE) run by FINEP, the federal government’s innovation agency, biotech startup Verdartis has developed a process to produce enzymes (proteins that act as catalysts) capable of making pulp manufacturing more sustainable and reducing the environmental impact of the pulp and paper industry.
Researchers Marcos Lourenzoni and Álvaro de Baptista Neto founded the firm, which is based in the Business Center of the Supera Innovation and Technology Park in Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo State. They explain that pulp obtained from wood chips by the kraft or sulfate process is reprocessed by refiners to change the structure of its fibers, making them more flexible. This process is mechanical and hence consumes a considerable amount of electricity. The action of the enzymes helps break down the pulp fibers, which speeds up the process and thereby saves electricity.
According to an assessment performed at the Pulp & Paper Laboratory of the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV) in Minas Gerais State, the blend of enzymes produced by Verdartis reduces electricity consumption in the refining stage by approximately 30%.
The startup completed its PIPE project in April 2017, successfully developing a production process for improved variants of cellulase and xylanase enzymes that can be blended in different proportions for use in refining both virgin fiber and pulp derived from recycled paper.
According to Lourenzoni, the firm plans to seek support from FAPESP for the development of a plan to ramp up production. The partners want to offer the market a local alternative to enzymes produced abroad. “There’s substantial demand for the product and no local production. The enzymes currently used are imported,” Baptista says.
Lourenzoni explains that the refining process depends on the type of paper to be produced and on the type of wood used to make the pulp. With regard to the latter, the problem with imported enzymes is that they are developed for use in a manufacturing process based on wood from conifers, whereas in Brazil, most paper pulp is made from eucalyptus, for which imported enzymes are not very efficient. Verdartis is betting on costumization to attract customers, he says.
The firm had already won support from FAPESP’s PIPE program to develop a technology called Persozyme, based on costumized enzyme engineering via “directed evolution”, which mimics in vitro the evolution of natural biodiversity and permits the selection of enzymes with predefined characteristics.
In this project, costumized enzymes were developed for the paper pulp bleaching process. Lourenzoni explains that the pulp is brown at the start of this process owing to residual lignin. To obtain white pulp, the manufacturer has to remove the lignan by using a large amount of chlorine dioxide (ClO2), a powerful oxidizing agent that reacts with lignin and breaks it down into smaller molecules. Effluent containing ClO2 can create toxic fumes.
The enzymes are designed to facilitate the chemical’s access to the lignin and reduce the amount of ClO2 used in production, with environmental and financial gains as a result. “The use of the enzymes permits a reduction of approximately 25% in the use of ClO2,” Lourenzoni says.
In research and development for Persozyme, in addition to five other projects funded by PIPE, the firm was also supported by the Chemistry Department of the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto School of Philosophy, Science and Letters (FFCLRP-USP). Indeed, it was this partnership that encouraged the two scientists to set up the firm in 2007.
“At that time, Professor Richard Ward was working with enzymes for high-temperature processing and wanted to move forward in the research that was being done at the university. We decided to start a biotech firm as I was familiar with bioinformatics, Álvaro Baptista knew about production, and Prof. Ward was an expert on molecular biology. We then received support from Suzano Papel e Celulose, a major pulp and paper manufacturer, in the form of samples for testing and guidance about the process,” Lourenzoni says. Ward is currently a consultant to Verdartis.
In 2010, Verdartis won a Technology Award for Startups from the Brazilian Chemical Industry Association (ABIQUIM) for its results in the production of costumized enzymes for pulp bleaching. However, this recognition did not prevent the firm from suffering the effects of the crisis faced by the industry. “Around 2011, the cost of water became very high and pulp makers began using less water for washing, which limited the use of our enzymes in bleaching, as the process requires efficient washing,” Baptista recalls.
The solution for Verdartis was to “pivot” by redirecting its business model, and it therefore decided to begin new research focusing on the refining process. The product designed for refining has now been developed and is ready to be marketed on an industrial scale. Verdartis plans to resume the production of enzymes for pulp and paper bleaching. “We’re now going to invest on both fronts,” Lourenzoni says.
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