Modern society relies on the products of traditional manufacturing processes: plastics, fuels, solvents, etc. However, these industrial activities release significant volumes of atmosphere-warming CO2 into the air and there is an urgent need to address this problem.
“We need to be thinking about how we can turn what is considered a waste stream that has detrimental effects, into something that is valuable and repurpose it to solve grand challenges,” says Dr. Christian Euler, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Euler and his business partner Vikram Pandit founded a company, Phycus Biotechnologies, which produces the first bio-based glycolic acid. Unlike traditional glycolic acid, which is made from a byproduct of refining oil, Phycus’ product is made using a fermentation process developed by their team. It ultimately begins as CO2 in the atmosphere, so it has a much lower carbon footprint than the current glycolic acid on the market.
In the future, Phycus’ process could use CO2 directly. “Being able to capture a certain amount of CO2 at a point source instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, we could transform it into something called ethylene glycol,” Euler says. “Our engineered microbe eats the ethylene glycol as a feedstock to make glycolic acid.”
Phycus Biotechnologies’ products are sold under the trademark name, Purolic Acid, which is made of 100 per cent bio-based ingredients. Although they originally had different intentions for creating glycolic acid as a product, such as selling it in large volumes in the commodity market, Euler and his team quickly learned that the cosmetic and personal care industry urgently sought a bio-based alternative of this chemical product.
Euler explains how glycolic acid can be used in multiple ways as a personal care ingredient: on its own as a facial toner or facial peel done only by estheticians; or mixed with other ingredients to improve the quality and effectiveness of these formulations.
“This is definitely a piece of advice for other chemical engineering students — the cosmetics and personal care industry is one you can get into,” Euler says.
Euler joined the Faculty of Engineering in January 2023. He brings his expertise in developing novel microbial platforms to the University of Waterloo with the hope of collaborating with other academics who work on transforming CO2, while developing a better understanding of what other valuable products can be produced using fermentation processes.
“I think we all have a good understanding that plastics really represent a grand challenge today,” Euler says. “There’s microplastic contamination everywhere. The plastics we use today are oil-based and evolution has not had the time to come up with ways of breaking down these plastics.”
Euler is hopeful that his research at Waterloo will allow him to develop integrated processes to make bio-made, biodegradable plastics from CO2. As they may serve as replacements for the environmentally persistent plastics we use today.
“I have been lucky in terms of the timing of this faculty role opening up and getting support for doing two major activities, side by side,” Euler says. “Working at the University of Waterloo, it is an environment that is extremely supportive of people in academia who are also connected to industry and are doing entrepreneurship, and it feels like I am meant to be here.”
In his final year of high school, Euler was fascinated by the idea that biology was bound by physical principles and therefore, it could be engineered. However, Euler did not know exactly how that could work or what it meant at the time.
Euler spent the next decade developing his academic career in biochemistry and chemical engineering, conducting research in synthetic biology and participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition. He credits several mentors along the way with helping to solidify his understanding of how to manufacture eco-friendly products by engineering biology.
“From early on in my undergraduate, I saw there was a lot of potential. But it was not until during my PhD where I learned that ultimately, engineering biology is the most sustainable way of going about things,” Euler says. "I really do think that by mid-century a lot of products will be made using biology because it is much more sustainable than using oil to manufacture chemical products.”