BioEncapsulation – Elimination of MicroPlastics in Groundwater and Soil
By: Frank Klemens – GFRP Fund I, Big Idea Ventures (New York City, New York), Max Martin – Supercharger (Nashville, Tennessee), Kevin Wang – Supercharger (New York City, New York)
*Generation Food Rural Partners Fund, a BIV Fund, partners with 23 US-based universities pioneering research into breakthrough agricultural technologies, food technologies, and protein innovations to create new companies and create living-wage jobs in rural communities across the US.
*Supercharger is a New York Based Financial Technology company that automates investment research and machine learning capabilities for the private capital market.
Agriculture is vital in supporting human existence by supplying essential food and fiber resources. However, modern agricultural practices have led to environmental problems such as soil degradation, contamination, and water pollution. While essential for protecting crops from pests and diseases, pesticides are one of the main contributors to these issues, as they can contaminate soil and water resources. Encapsulation technology has emerged to protect pesticides from degradation, volatilization, and leaching, allowing them to release slowly for long-lasting pest control and reduced pesticide application frequency. However, oil-based encapsulated products have been found to form microplastics, which then leach into our soils and water. The evolution of encapsulation technologies, mainly through biodegradable polymers, now promises to eliminate microplastic contamination in soil and water, paving the way for a cleaner and more sustainable future guarding against agricultural microplastic contamination.
The agricultural sector is witnessing rapid advancements in encapsulation technology, with numerous innovative developments emerging in the field. Here are some of the most cutting-edge encapsulation technologies currently being employed in agriculture:
Biodegradable polymers: These encapsulation materials offer the advantage of being derived from natural sources and can be broken down by microorganisms, reducing environmental contamination. Biodegradable polymers distinguish themselves with their eco-friendly footprint. This attribute stems from their origin in natural sources and their ability to degrade into non-toxic byproducts through the action of microorganisms. This unique feature significantly reduces environmental contamination, placing these materials at the forefront of sustainable innovation. Compared to a conventional plastic degradation timetable, biodegradable polymers can decompose in a few weeks to several months, depending on the type of polymer and the environmental conditions.
Cyclodextrins: Recognized for their remarkable capacity to form inclusion complexes, cyclodextrins are critical in enhancing the solubility and stability of many active ingredients. These cyclic oligosaccharides, composed of 6, 7, or 8 glucopyranose units linked by α-1,4 bonds, have a unique toroidal or cone shape. This structure allows for a hydrophilic exterior that interacts favorably with water and a hydrophobic interior that can accommodate a diverse range of organic molecules.
Cyclodextrin derivatives, such as β-CD and HP-β-CD, effectively absorb pesticides and other organic pollutants from contaminated soil, while enhancing the solubility of such compounds without affecting their bio toxicity. Utilizing cyclodextrin solutions in crop treatment can significantly boost yields, and using cyclodextrin powdered inclusions in feed can evenly distribute fat-soluble vitamins, preventing degradation due to light and oxygen. Cyclodextrins’ significant role in various fields continues to expand as further research explores new applications.
Moreover, cyclodextrins are prized for their biodegradability and non-toxic nature, making them an environmentally friendly and sustainable option. They can be fully broken down by enzymes in the human body and most environments, reducing potentially harmful waste products.
Nevertheless, due to their size constraint, their application scope might be somewhat circumscribed compared to biodegradable polymers. Cyclodextrins primarily interact with molecules that can fit within their cavity, the size of which varies depending on the number of glucopyranose units. For instance, β-cyclodextrin, with seven glucopyranose units, has an internal cavity diameter of about 7.9 Å (angstroms).
Liposomes: Liposomes hold a unique and potentially game-changing position in the realm of pesticide delivery within agriculture, primarily due to their biodegradable and non-toxic nature. These microscopic vesicles, composed of a phospholipid bilayer, demonstrate a remarkable versatility in encapsulating a broad array of active ingredients, from hydrophilic to hydrophobic molecules, offering a flexible, high-capacity solution for pesticide delivery.
Despite certain challenges pertaining to their stability, shelf life, and the complexity and cost of their production process – especially when compared to more conventional encapsulation technologies such as biodegradable polymers or cyclodextrins – liposomes have shown substantial promise in various studies. For instance, research conducted by the University of Florida in 2022 revealed that liposomal encapsulated pesticides had 70% more efficiency than conventional pesticides, reducing the required dosage and, subsequently, the associated costs and environmental impact (University of Florida, 2022).
Furthermore, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, effective usage of liposomes in pesticide delivery could potentially decrease overall pesticide use by up to 25-30%, implying a significant reduction in environmental toxicity and financial expenditure on pesticides on a global scale (FAO, 2023).
Despite these potential benefits, the production process of liposomes might be more intricate, and expensive compared to alternative encapsulation technologies, and their stability and shelf life may not meet the standards of their more traditional counterparts. However, with continuous research and development efforts, these limitations will likely be addressed, paving the way for liposomes to revolutionize the agricultural industry.
An example of encapsulated pesticide products is the “Envirocap” technology developed by the US-based company Capsulated Systems. The Envirocap technology encapsulates the pesticide in a biodegradable and water-soluble polymer capsule. The capsule protects the pesticide from environmental stresses, such as sunlight and moisture, and releases the pesticide slowly over time. The biodegradable nature of the capsule means that it breaks down into harmless byproducts, reducing the environmental impact of the pesticide application.
Encapsulation technology can also be used to develop pesticide formulations that are more sustainable and eco-friendly. For example, researchers at the University of California, Davis (a GFRP Fund partner University) have developed an encapsulated pesticide formulation using chitosan, a biopolymer derived from the shells of crustaceans. The chitosan capsules protect the pesticide from degradation and improve the persistence of the pesticide in the soil. Chitosan is biodegradable and non-toxic, making it a sustainable alternative to synthetic polymers.
Encapsulation technology can also be used to develop biopesticides derived from natural sources with minimal environmental impact. Biopesticides can be encapsulated to improve their efficacy and reduce the active ingredients required for pest control. For example, researchers at the University of Missouri (another GFRP Fund partner University) have developed an encapsulated biopesticide using chitosan and soy protein. The encapsulated biopesticide showed improved efficacy compared to the unencapsulated biopesticide and reduced the active ingredient required for pest control.
Encapsulation technology can also be used to develop plant-based products that can help prevent soil contamination and degradation. For example, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed an encapsulated plant product using zein, a protein derived from corn. The encapsulated plant product can be used as a soil amendment to prevent the leaching of nitrate, a common pollutant in agricultural runoff. The zein capsule protects the plant material from degradation and slowly releases nutrients into the soil, providing long-lasting benefits for crop growth and soil.
AgroSpheres: AgroSpheres is a US-based startup with biodegradable pesticide microencapsulation technology. The technology uses a natural polymer that breaks down into harmless byproducts, reducing the environmental impact of pesticide applications. The encapsulated pesticides are designed to release slowly over time, providing long-lasting pest control while reducing the amount of pesticide released into the environment.
Sphera Encapsulation: Sphera Encapsulation is an Italy-based startup that uses biocompatible and biodegradable materials to produce its encapsulating carrier shell. Its flagship product SpherAQ is a 100% natural and fully-soluble encapsulate that can hold any lipophilic ingredient.
Nanomnia: Nanomnia is an Italy-based startup that has developed a completely natural encapsulation method. The system allows the inclusion of active ingredients in nano or microcapsules made of sustainable ingredients with natural encapsulation properties.
Calyxia: Calyxia is a France-based startup that has developed a patented double emulsion process to manufacture microcapsules containing functional ingredients industrially. The process is compatible with an ever-expanding list of over 200 different shell materials, including biodegradable and bio-based materials.
Xampla: Xampla is an England-based startup that has developed natural biopolymers, a new patented plant-based material with remarkable functional properties. These natural biopolymers are used in Xampla’s vitamin and nutrient microcapsules, which protect vitamins and nutrients in liquid from UV light, external pH, and heat shock by encasing them in an edible layer of plant-protein material.
Venture Capital Activity
Bioencapsulation agriculture solutions can face challenges in terms of price competitiveness compared to traditional polymer and non-bio-based encapsulation solutions. Several factors contribute to this price difference:
Production costs: The development and production of bio-based encapsulation materials can be more expensive than conventional encapsulation methods, primarily due to using natural, renewable, or biodegradable resources. The production processes for these materials can be more complex, leading to higher manufacturing costs. Of course, these costs will be different for different encapsulation materials. Studies have shown that PHAs, PLAs, and nano-lignocellulose, all common materials for encapsulation, have relatively high production costs compared to plastic alternatives.
Economies of scale: Conventional polymer and non-bio-based encapsulation solutions have been in the market for a more extended period, resulting in well-established and scaled-up production processes. As a result, these solutions can be produced at a lower cost per unit. Bio-based encapsulation technologies are still relatively new, and their production processes may have yet to reach the same economies of scale, leading to higher prices.
Research and development: Bio-based encapsulation solutions often require significant research and development investments to overcome challenges related to stability, shelf life, and compatibility with active ingredients. This investment can contribute to the overall cost of the product. Researchers predict that this high need for investment will hinder the market for bio-based polymers in the short term.
However, it is essential to consider the long-term benefits of bio-based encapsulation agriculture solutions. While the initial costs may be higher, these solutions can provide more sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives that reduce environmental contamination and potential future regulatory costs.
Furthermore, as the demand for environmentally friendly solutions increases and production processes improve, the prices of bio-based encapsulation materials will likely decrease, making them more competitive with traditional polymer and non-bio-based encapsulation solutions over time.
Bio-based encapsulation technologies offer promising solutions for a more sustainable agriculture sector but face several challenges and hurdles. These obstacles must be addressed to fully realize the potential of bio-based encapsulation in agriculture.
Cost and scalability: The production of bio-based encapsulation materials can be more expensive than conventional methods, posing challenges for widespread adoption. Scaling up while maintaining cost-effectiveness is crucial for both startups and established companies.
Stability and shelf life: Some bio-based materials may offer additional stability and shelf life than synthetic alternatives. Ensuring these materials maintain their integrity and protect active ingredients over extended periods is essential for commercial success.
Regulatory approval: Bio-based encapsulation materials and products must undergo rigorous testing and obtain necessary regulatory approvals before commercialization. This lengthy and costly process can create significant barriers to market entry for companies in the sector.
In conclusion, the agricultural industry plays a vital role in providing essential resources for human sustenance but faces significant environmental challenges due to modern practices. Bio-Based encapsulation technology offers a promising avenue for addressing these challenges, particularly when utilizing biodegradable polymers, cyclodextrins, and liposomes. The innovation and development of sustainable encapsulation solutions have the potential to reduce contamination, improve the efficiency of pesticide and fertilizer applications, and contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future for agriculture. Continued investment in agriculture-focused startups by venture capital firms demonstrates the growing interest and commitment to advancing these eco-friendly technologies. As the agricultural sector evolves, it is essential to keep exploring and refining sustainable solutions to minimize environmental impacts and ensure the long-term viability of our food systems.