Vanillin is an organic compound, classified as a phenolic aldehyde. It can be extracted from the vanilla bean.
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Due to the high cost and scarcity of vanillin, synthetic vanillin is also widely used in beverages, food, and even pharmaceuticals for its flavoring properties and because of its smell.
The Aztecs used vanilla for flavoring during the 16th century, but vanillin was not isolated until 1858, a time when Theodore Nicolas Gobley crystallized it from vanilla extract. Nowadays, almost all of the vanillin used by the food industry is manufactured. Recently, researchers discovered that the bacteria E. Coli can be used to convert post-consumer plastic into vanillin.
The mentioned process could become crucial to promote a circular economy, that aims to reduce waste, reuse products, and materials and positively impact the environment. Besides, it is no secret that the planet is facing a crisis and there is an urgent need to create ways to recycle polyethylene terephthalate, commonly know as PET. This kind of plastic is strong and lightweight, and it is the most popular one in the soft drink industry since it is used for making plastic bottles.
It is worth highlighting that almost 50 million tonnes of PET waste are produced per year and have severe environmental impacts. Even though PET can be recycled, the existing processes are responsible for products that also contribute to plastic pollution. This is why scientists from The University of Edinburgh used lab-engineered E.Coli to transform Thereftalic acid which is a molecule derived from PET into vanillin by a series of chemical reactions. The team showed how the technique was proved effective as they converted a used plastic bottle into vanillin by adding the E.Coli to the degraded plastic waste.
Although scientists have confirmed that the resulting vanillin is safe for human consumption, further tests are required. According to Science Daily, the global demand for vanillin in 2018, was more than 37,000 tonnes in 2018, since it is used in the food industry as well as for making cosmetics, herbicides, antifoaming agents, and cleaning products. The study by The University of Edinburgh was published in Green Chemistry and represents an important beginning for maximizing the production of vanillin and contributing to the generation of a circular and sustainable economy. The research was funded by a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.