How a footballer’s wonder chemical could change the world – a scientist explains

CH3C(O)CH2CH2CO2H? Eureka! Reuters

Arsenal’s French midfielder Mathieu Flamini is set to revolutionise the green energy sector. The footballer recently revealed himself as the secret backer behind GF Biochemicals, an Italian company which will reportedly be the first to mass produce a chemical known as levulinic acid.

There are claims the acid could replace all forms of oil, and Flamini himself says he’s opening up a market potentially worth £20 billion. It’s certainly a very exciting substance.

Levulinic acid is a white powder that dissolves easily in water and is relatively safe to handle due to its low toxicity, though it is known to be a skin irritant. You’re unlikely to ever directly see or touch it yourself, though you’ll certainly use products that depend on it.

It is one of an emerging group of substances we call “platform chemicals” as they can be sustainably produced from plant material and in turn used to make a variety of valuable products.

However despite the hype, levulinic acid isn’t going to replace regular fuels anytime soon and acid-powered cars aren’t going to happen. Though it has been used to produce fuels, these fuels are most often seen as an additive, to be mixed with diesel for example. The acid has its greatest promise instead in other markets.

Flamini’s game plan

It’s worth remembering that crude oil is not only used to make fuel but is also the major raw material for our chemical industry. Everything from plastic bottles to sunscreen ultimately depends on it. The challenge is to use chemicals from biomass – the organic matter from living or recently dead organisms – to replace those currently made from oil.

Flamini with business partner Pasquale Granata. Mattieu Flamini / Twitter

Indeed, much research has already been carried out into the use of levulinic acid to make all sorts of different things such as pharmaceuticals, plastics, solvents, cosmetics, flavour and fragrances, and herbicides and pesticides for agriculture. GF Biochemical’s own website contains a long list of potential uses.

This flexibility puts Flamini and GF Biochem in a strong position. It allows for an easier shift between different markets when required; as demand for one product wains another may be increased and this can be exploited. In essence, the more products you can make from a particular chemical, the more markets you can potentially move into, which strikes me as a good game plan.

Waste not, want not

Levulinic acid has another string to its bow: it can be produced from wood chippings, straw and other bits of plants that would otherwise go to waste. Indeed, the company states that it has already used wastes such as wheatstraw and grass clippings.

The importance of using waste biomass cannot be overstated. It means land won’t be tied up growing crops solely for chemicals and fuels, and could instead be used to produce food. This would reduce both our mountain of waste and our reliance on depleting fossil resources.

There are further benefits. Within the biomass it is predominately the cellulose that is converted to levulinic acid. The cell walls of most plants are made of cellulose, and as such it is easily available in very large quantities. It’s even present in some of our rubbish – cotton and paper, for instance, both come from plants.

Not your usual footballer side project. Thomas Farmer, Author provided

That means cotton football socks with a hole in the toe and leftover matchday programmes from the next Arsenal game could, in principle, be used since both are mainly cellulose. This again gives Flamini and the company flexibility; they can change the waste they use to make levulinic acid depending on what is readily available at the time, just as long as it contains cellulose.

As levulinic acid can be produced using raw materials found anywhere plants grow, which is almost everywhere, there’s one final benefit: countries like the UK that currently rely heavily on imported oil to supply their chemical industry could instead use cellulose as a raw material.

Of course, this won’t solve all our chemical needs. Other sustainable chemicals will also be required. Likewise, despite its potential, it’s still not going to be enough to fulfil our global fuel demands.

But since levulinic acid can be made from easily available raw materials and can be used to make many different products, Flamini does seem to have backed a winner. So if after his next match you see him collecting all the used paper cups and matchday programmes please, consider giving him a helping hand by donating yours.