UD research leads to start-up that could bring earth-friendly cosmetics, lubricants

More than 20 million people board cruise ships each year to enjoy a little rest and relaxation. The lucky travelers liberally apply sunscreen before sunning themselves on deck, while the ship’s intricate machinery chugs forward, propelling the vessel toward unknown destinations.

Now, a University of Delaware start-up company, called RiKarbon, Inc., may have a way to make both of these activities greener.

Researchers at RiKarbon are combining plant scraps and natural oils, through chemistry, to engineer a bio-based oil that can be used as a renewable alternative to typical petroleum-based resources used in everything from popular skin lotions and sunscreens to lubricants.

The eco-friendly oil is made from approximately 50 percent biomass, such as grasses, corn husks and wood chips, and 50 percent common cooking oil.

“If we can use renewable sources, it will minimize pressure on petroleum while reducing our carbon footprint and creating a sustainable use for enormous amounts of available biomass,” said RiKarbon founder Basudeb Saha.

The focus on the cosmetics industry is borne out of the potentially harmful ingredients included in popular skin lotions and sunscreens to provide improved sun protection and other benefits. When washed off with water, ingredients that are not water soluble create pollution in our water streams that can be harmful to the environment.

An emerging area of use for RiKarbon’s eco-friendly technology lies in lubricants — a $60 billion-dollar industry.

The startup company grew out of Saha’s work at CCEI, an energy frontier research center housed at UD and funded by the Department of Energy, that focuses on renewable energy technologies derived from non-food biomass.

The team recently received $150,000 in funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program – Department of Energy, an injection that will enable the team to work on developing environmentally acceptable lubricants for hydropower, a low-carbon source of electricity production.

“We have hired two employees, leased space in UD’s STAR Campus incubator and are considering ways to scale up the product,” said Saha.