Microbial Biotechnology for the benefit of environmental, food, biofuel, biomedical and pharmaceutical sustainable applications

  • Ibrahim Banat

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


I started my microbiological research when I embarked on a PhD at Essex University England in 1978-1981 mainly on microbial interactions in saltmarsh sediments and environment. I continued for a couple of years work as a postdoctoral research officer for two years 1981- 1982 on the same topic. I joined the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research in 1983 and immediately diverted to interest in microbial biotechnology, single cell proteins, wastewater, treatment, microbial bioactives and biosurfactant production and applications. I continued these lines of research and initiated these areas when I joined Ulster University for a short period 1990-1991 and then as an honorary researcher 1992-1996 and finally taking a fulltime position in 1997 which is continued to date.
I was involved in the initiation of several areas of research at UU among which the main and most prolific was on biosurfactant and related research and applications. I have been working with biosurfactants for 35 years as I realized the significance of this research field and its future potentials which compelled me to persevere in this area while establishing an international network of collaborators and scientists interested in working on biosurfactants. The main question I had was figuring the reason why some microorganisms produce biosurfactants? The answer has not been simple or straight forward, as these compounds appear to have several functions linked to the existence of these microorganisms. One of the apparent functions in microorganism that use hydrocarbon substrates for growth or to exist in oily substrates is to make these substrates available for them to metabolise. Other roles include motility in viscous environments or for the purpose of controlling the quorum sensing mechanisms of cells, which adjust gene expressions depending on cell density or on their surrounding environment. Evidence of biosurfactants playing an important role in biofilm formation and maintenance and disruption of mature biofilms integrity, to sustain channels for nutrient and gaseous exchanges also exist. All the above-hypothesised functions of biosurfactants have been put forward for some bacteria. The reasons why several yeasts, however, produce large quantities of biosurfactants remain not fully explained. One explanation for yeasts is the type of environment they grow in which may have waxes or high molecular weight hydrophobic molecules.
Interest in biosurfactants mainly emerged during the eighties and nineties and reached a critical stage when commercial exploitation started by international companies which aimed to explore using them as ingredients in some of their products rather than using chemical surfactants to meet their sustainability initiative and green programs. Interest started mounting rapidly as and their beneficial outcomes reached a stage to be dependent on successfully tailoring these compounds for specific applications and exploring production at a price that makes them attractive alternatives to chemical surfactants.
Many issues remain to be investigated before largescale exploitation for many biosurfactants becomes possible. These include cost of production, achievable yields, and safety issues for some of the producing strains. Many biosurfactants have already been used as ingredients in several commercial products. I have always believed that there are no major impediments to the use of biosurfactants in a wide range of products and applications which includes benefits to the environmental, uses in food, biofuel, biomedical, pharmaceutical, and sustainability issues. Some are already slowly happening and expected to increase significantly as the drive towards enhancing the green credentials and sustainability of many product become essential to expand and target specific sectors.
This commercial interest in biosurfactants has been reflected by the number and diversity of Industrial Companies and European Union-funded research projects that I have become involved with and that have major roles in biosurfactants research. These include, projects funded by Unilever Company (5 partners) to use them in their cleaning and sanitary products, the EU FP7 project KILL.SPILL (32 partners), which examined the remediation of marine oil spills, the EU FP7 BIOSURFING (10 partners) project, which focuses on the production of ‘new to nature’ sophorolipids with applications in the food and pharmaceutical sectors; and the Horizon 2020 MARISURF project (12 partners), which pioneered the search for new biosurfactants from marine bacteria for a range of potential applications. All these projects have many industrial partners supporting and exploring possibilities of using these compounds in their products or services.
The contribution of my research and published work on biosurfactants, bioactives and microbial biotechnology in general had advanced the knowledge and interest and met many research and industrial needs. Perhaps the most significant of my achievement was in collaborating with Unilever which commenced in 2006 supported by funding from the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for a multi partner project of total value £1.9 million that aimed to design and manufacture sustainable products. These collaborations extended the scope of biosurfactant application to included 2 CAST studentships, Post-doctoral visiting researchers and a second project funding through the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) in 2012 for a second major multiple partner project of around £1.0 million. These collaborations resulted in Unilever filing 9 patent applications and us publishing 10 collaborative scientific papers in international journal in collaboration with Oxford University.
The results of this collaborations and drive into this area has culminated in Unilever partnering with Evoniks (A German speciality chemicals company with a biosurfactant production facility) and launching their green cleaning ingredients. This innovative ingredient was recently introduced to the market in the summer of 2019 as Unilever’s ‘Quix’ dishwashing brand in Chile which was the first time a rhamnolipid biosurfactant was used in a household cleaning product anywhere in the world.
​​​​​​​The whole journey of this research work has produced several doctoral and postdoctoral researchers all working locally and within the international arena. I am gratified that I have become one of the prominent scientists in the field and was invited in Sept. 2019 to give the opening keynote plenary lecture entitled “Microbial Biosurfactant; State of the Art” in the first ever conference on Biosurfactants organized by the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. I also am scheduled for the Keynote address for the 2nd Biosurfactant conference in Stuttgart-Hohenheim in September 2022 with the title “A Journey into Biosurfactants Research and Development for Over Three Decades”.
Date of AwardJan 2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPeter Flatt (Supervisor)


  • Microbiology
  • Biotechnology
  • Environmental Science
  • Bioremediation
  • Biosurfactants
  • Food
  • Feed
  • Biofuel
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Sustainable

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