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Sustainability assessment of biobased surfactants by fermentation and biomass transformation

   Department of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science

About the Project

This PhD project in collaboration with Holiferm Limited will assess the environmental impacts and techno-economic aspects of different types of biosurfactants, produced via a variety of pathways such as fermentation and biomass transformation, and compare these to traditional chemical surfactants in a consistent way – allowing for fair and even evaluation of the environmental profiles/benefits. This will be achieved using a combination of experimental and process simulation methods, integrated with techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessment. The findings will be used to identify limitations to overcome and opportunities for process improvement in order to advance biosurfactant commercialisation.

The surfactant market is large and established with the commonly encountered surfactants, e.g. SLES, being chemically synthesised from crude oil derived raw materials.1 This leads to a range of environmental issues, with aquatic toxicity and persistence in the environment being particular disadvantages. Oleochemical based surfactants, also known as biosurfactants, are renewable alternatives to petrochemical based surfactants that can be produced from various renewable sources, e.g. plant oils and carbohydrates.2-4 Examples of industrially relevant biosurfactants include alkyl polyglucosides (APG), alcohol ethoxylates and glycolipids, which can be produced by biomass transformation2-3 and in the case of the latter, by microbial fermentation.4 Whilst the renewable nature of the feedstocks used in their production can represent a major advantage with respect to crude oil, the overall environmental and economic sustainability performance of biobased surfactants is largely unknown. For example, only a handful of life cycle assessment (LCA) studies on biosurfactants have been reported in literature spanning few compounds.2-4 However, the methodology approaches used and assumptions made vary across studies, making robust comparative analysis impossible and unreliable. This PhD project will directly address these inconsistencies and lack of knowledge. Further, most biosurfactant production processes reported in the literature are focused on biomass transformation processes, leaving a significant knowledge gap when it comes to fermentation process for the production of glycolipids. Therefore, there is a need to obtain experimental data for these processes to enable sustainability studies and scale up projections to be carried out. 

Entry Requirements

Applicants should have or expect to achieve at least a 2.1 honours degree Chemical Engineering or a related discipline.

Application Information

Information about the application process and a link to the online application form can be found at https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/postgraduate-research/admissions/how-to-apply/.

You MUST make contact with the lead project supervisor before submitting an application.

To apply for this programme, select PhD Chemical Engineering and then PhD Sustainable Industrial Systems. When completing the application include the name of the lead project supervisor as the potential supervisor.

Enquiries about this project can be sent to Dr Cuellar-Franca - as the lead project supervisor. The Admissions team in Chemical Engineering can be contacted at  with any queries you may have regarding the application process.

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact. We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder). 

Funding Notes

This is a 3.5 years PhD starting in September 2022. Collaboration with Holiferm Limited (View Website), providing in kind research support (facility access) and technical support from R&D team. No specific funding allocated, available for self-funded students and funding is potentially available through President’s Doctoral Scholar award (PDS) View Website.


[1] Schowanek, D. et al. 2018, The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 23 (4), 867-886.
[2] Nogueira, A. R. et al. 2019, Journal of Cleaner Production, 240, 118203.
[3] Guilbot, J. et al. 2013, Green Chemistry, 15 (12), 3337-3354.
[4] Baccile, N. et al. 2017, ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 5 (1), 1186-1198.

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