Beetle to prevent blockages in oil

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A protein from a tiny long-horned beetle may prove to be a safe, eco-friendly alternative to the chemicals currently used to minimize the risk associated with transporting oil.

Christine Malmos Perfeldt, postdoc at DTU

It is well known that global dependence on fossil fuels carries environmental consequences, but the actual extraction and transportation of oil are far from hazard-free. Just think of what happened when Deepwater Horizon—the BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico—exploded in 2010. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong indeed …

One of the areas where there is a high risk of accidents is in the miles and miles of pipelines that spread out like a gigantic network of blood vessels, carrying millions of litres of oil from the wells to the refineries. In the same way as in people, blockages to these ‘lifelines’ constitute a major threat. In the oil industry, what are known as ‘inhibitors’ are used to counteract the risk of blockages—and this is where Christine Malmos Perfeldt, postdoc at DTU Chemical Engineering comes into the picture, with her little long-horned beetle: Rhagium mordax.

Briefly put, the problem is that oil tends to crystallize in the pipes when the temperature falls, leading to the risk of gas hydrates—i.e. blockages—forming in the pipes and causing leaks. The only solution to date has been to use expensive, cumbersome and polluting methods to combat the problem, but the long-horned beetle contains a protein that allows it to live in temperatures that are much lower than the melting point for its bodily fluids, and this protein can be used to prevent gas hydrates from forming in oil pipes.

“The inhibitors in use today fail to comply with environmental legislation in the North Sea, so it has become imperative to find a more eco-friendly solution. In this regard, proteins are a good option because they occur naturally. Proteins are safer—but much more expensive—so this is one of the challenges we are working on right now,” relates Christine Malmos Perfeldt, who is responsible for research into using the beetle protein.

Protein to replace chemistry

“It’s an interesting project, because it combines biology with chemical engineering. And I found it really exciting to work on an experimental project where the emphasis was also on coming up with a solution with a practical application in industry,” she adds.

“What we do is to replace a chemical with a protein. It can be hard to understand what is happening, and that is why we’ve invited biologists from RUC to join us—they were actually the ones who discovered the protein—because we’re combining two extremely different worlds.”

Christine Malmos Perfeldt, postdoc at DTU Chemical Engineering

“What we do is to replace a chemical with a protein. It can be hard to understand what is happening, and that is why we’ve invited biologists from RUC to join us—they were actually the ones who discovered the protein—because we’re combining two extremely different worlds.”

Even though a synthetic version of the protein is still highly expensive to product, production has been initiated through a partnership between DTU Chemical Engineering and Expres2ion Biotechnologies, based in Hørsholm. The partners are delighted with the project, but fully aware that the production price will largely define whether it will prove successful in the future.

Believe in the idea

“DTU holds responsibility for analysing how much potential the protein has. But we find the partnership interesting, and we’re delighted to be involved; after all, you need to have the product to be able to see what potential it contains,” says Sancha Salgueiro, Vice President of Business Development at Expres2ion Biotechnologies.

“Both we and DTU need to carry on researching the protein to find out more about aspects such as production costs, but right now we’re focusing exclusively on whether or not the protein actually works. The issue of how expensive it may or may not be can wait.”

Christine Malmos Perfeldt believes that in any case, the fundamental idea is a step in the right direction, even if it is not the long-horned beetle that eventually flows through our oil pipelines:

“I believe the work we’re doing could easily lead to ideas for developing other, more readily biodegradable inhibitors. But we need to do more research into the production method associated with this particular protein before we can determine whether or not it holds industrial potential.”

Article by Bertel Henning Jensen in DTU Avisen

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