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New Process Boosts Uses for Fats, Oils

By Tara Weaver-Missick
December 15, 1999

A new enzyme-recycling method that could expand non-food uses for domestic animal fats and vegetable oils has been developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists.

Enzymes are complex proteins that are nature’s way of “making things happen” when it comes to carrying out specific chemical reactions in plants and animals.

Researchers with ARS’ Hides, Lipids and Wool Research Unit in Wyndmoor, Pa., have applied for a patent (PATENT Application #O9-239,778) on their discovery. They have demonstrated the method using the enzyme lipoxygenase, which adds oxygen to fatty acids. Adding oxygen to fatty acids improves their properties, thus expanding their commercial uses.

Currently, manufacturers rely on imported castor oil for making certain commercial materials. Castor oil is imported into the United States from South America, China and India. Using the ARS technology, it is now possible to produce castor-oil-type fatty acids from domestic fats and oils, instead of relying on imports.

The main advantages of using enzymes in this way: They’re more stable and can be used over and over again, which is more economical. Current processes rely on non-reusable enzymes that make the process more expensive.

This technology allows manufacturers to improve the properties of domestic fats and oils for use in applications such as lubricants, greases, emulsifiers and plasticizers.

The scientists have expanded this research to include other enzymes such as lipases, which are being used to convert oils, fats and restaurant greases into biodiesel fuels and lubricants. Biodiesel products are a renewable alternative to petroleum-derived diesel fuels.

ARS researchers are currently looking for industrial partners to further develop this technology commercially. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Scientific contact: An-Fei C. Hsu and Thomas A. Foglia, ARS Eastern Regional Research Center, Hides, Lipids and Wool Research Unit, Wyndmoor, Pa., phone (215) 233-6400, fax (215) 233-6795,,