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Plant discovery might mean greener industrial catalysts

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory, part of the US Department of Energy, scientists may have made a discovery that may have implications for developing industrial catalysts, and it is based on a newly discovered function of a plant enzyme.

In this new function, the plant enzyme could initiate a foundational chemical reaction that is required to synthesise a diverse range of organic molecules, such as those needed to produce plastics, cosmetics, and lubricants like commercial vehicle oil.

Many companies and researchers are already looking for alternatives for fossil-based oil sources. ExxonMobil, for example, is looking to harvest algae oil on an industrial scale, some of which may ultimately find its way into its Mobil range of lubricants.

The leader of the research at Brookhaven Lab, biochemist John Shanklin, said:

“This enzyme could inspire a new form of ‘green’ chemistry. Maybe we can adapt this biomolecule to make useful chemicals in plants, or use it as the basis for designing new bio-inspired catalysts to replace more expensive, toxic catalysts currently in use.”

The team studied three mutations of a desaturase enzyme, and two of these were found to eliminate the double bond that existed between consecutive carbon atoms in a hydrocarbon chain, followed by supplementing an “OH” (hydroxyl group) onto each carbon atom, resulting in a so-called diol.
These diols are typically hard to synthesise in a lab, yet they are important ingredients in lubricants and can be further processed into raw materials for making plastics and other commodities.

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