A machine uses E coli to break down algae oil for testing at Dr. Park’s lab. Photo by Elaine Ramirez

Elaine Ramirez writes for asia.nikkei.com that, ever since four pregnant women died of mysterious lung problems in 2011, South Korea has been haunted by scandals over toxic chemicals in common household goods. The multiple deaths, together with serious lung damage suffered by hundreds of other victims, have heightened concern about the dangers lurking in domestic cleaning cabinets and air humidifiers, inspiring a burgeoning movement aimed at replacing possibly hazardous chemicals with alternatives derived from natural sources.

One option being investigated by South Korean scientists is to make use of a recent scientific development that uses enzymes to turn algae into plastic. Park Jin-byung, a leading researcher, hopes the process can also be used in biopreservatives to replace synthetic ingredients in cosmetics, personal care products and foods.

Dr. Jin-byung claims that his process is unique because it uses the enzymes as an environment-friendly method of developing a heavy-chain carboxylic acid, a type of monomer — the basic building block for high-quality plastics — that is traditionally manufactured through a harsh chemical process.

“Nowadays, chemical products are generating a number of problems, not only in human lives but in nature. So our goal is to replace chemical products that are probably toxic to the environment with safer products, including natural products,” Dr. Jin-byung said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in Seoul.

Dr. Jin-byung and his team at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul have been working since 2013 on the second step of the process — engineering enzymes that enhance E. coli, a common bacteria, allowing it to break down fatty acid and oils, such as those found in algae, soybean oil and used cooking oil, into monomers.

Their breakthrough finally came late last year when they secured the fundamental technology for the procedure, which takes about 10 hours, according to details published in the scientific journal ACS Catalysis. In January, Dr. Jin-byung’s team was awarded a patent in Japan for the biotransformation.

Recognizing the potential value of the unused low-quality marine biomass produced as byproducts, Dr. Jin-byung wanted to develop a technology to use the waste. He secured research grants from two state-run foundations, worth a total of about 1 billion won a year until 2020. “The [government] supports our project because we can develop new technology to increase the quality and value of marine biomass,” he said.

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Additional reporting by Ryu Ji-mi