A start-up company from the University of Delaware, USA, has combined plant waste and vegetable oils to engineer a bio-based oil which can be used as a renewable alternative to petroleum-based products in applications from skin lotions to industrial lubricants.

RiKarbon – which means revolutionising the carbon – has made the bio-oil from 50% biomass, such as grasses, corn husks and wood chips, and 50% vegetable oil.

Company founder Basudeb Saha said he was working with several companies to evaluate and test the bio-oil in personal care and lubricant applications.

Lubricants – used to keep bearings, gears, thrusters, engines and other mechanical parts running smoothly – was a US$60bn industry.

“There is a big need for environmentally acceptable lubricants for applications where petroleum-based products can lead to environmental challenges that are costly to clean up,” said Saha.

A 2011 report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that up to 727M litres/year of petroleum-based industrial lubricants are released into the ocean due to leakage or the careless disposal of lubricants from marine vessels and hydropower production turbines. The negative effects on the ocean’s ecosystem had prompted the search for safer alternatives.

More eco-friendly cosmetics were also becoming a focus for the personal care industry. Some skin lotions had potentially harmful ingredients which were not water soluble and created pollution water streams and the ocean. Sunscreen residue, for example, affected the development of marine organisms such as horseshoe crabs and coral.

“We seldom read any of the information around the products we use,” said Saha. “We’re all ignorant to what’s actually inside them, even though we make it a point to use sunscreen when we go to the beach and other places. If we can use our product to replace the harmful ingredients, we can help the environment and serve the consumer.”