Enzymes have played an important role in many aspects of life since the dawn of time. In fact they are vitally important to the existence of life itself. Civilizations have used enzymes for thousands of years without understanding what they were or how they work. Over the past several generations, science has unlocked the mystery of enzymes and has applied this knowledge to make better use of these amazing substances in an ever-growing number of applications.Enzymes play crucial roles in producing the food we eat, the cloths we wear, even in producing fuel for our automobiles. Enzymes are also important in reducing both energy consumption and environment pollution.
What are enzymes and what do they do?
Enzymes are proteins with highly specialized catalytic functions produced by all living organisms. Enzymes are responsible for many essential biochemical reactions in microorganisms, plants, animals and human beings. Enzymes are responsible for all metabolic processes, but are not alive. Although like other proteins, enzymes are composed of amino acids, they differ in functions in that they have the unique ability to facilitate biochemical reactions without undergoing change themselves. This catalytic capability is what makes enzymes unique. Enzymes are natural protein molecules that act as highly efficient catalysts in biochemical reactions, that is, they help chemical reaction take place quickly and efficiently. Enzymes not only work efficiently and rapidly, they are also biodegradable. Enzymes are highly efficient in increasing the reaction rate of biochemical processes that otherwise proceed very slowly, or in other cases, not at all.
Enzymes play a diversified role in many aspects of everyday life including aiding in digestion, the production of food and several industrial applications. Enzymes also play significant role in non-food applications. Industrial enzymes are used in laundry and dishwashing detergents, stonewashing jeans, pulp and paper manufacture, Leather dehairing and tanning, desizing of textiles, deinking of paper, and degreasing of hides.
Advantages of Enzymes
The use of enzymes frequently results in many benefits that cannot be obtained with traditional chemical treatment. These often include higher product quality and lower manufacturing cost and less waste and reduced energy consumption. More traditional chemical treatments are nonspecific, not always easily controlled, and may create harsh conditions. Often they produce undesirable side effects and/or waste disposal problems. The degree to which a desired technical effect is achieved by an enzyme can be controled through various means such as dose, temperature and time. Because enzymes are catalysts, the amount added to accomplish a reaction is relatively small. For example, an enzyme preparation in most food uses is equal to 0.1 (or less) of the product. Enzymes used in food processing are generally destroyed during subsequent processing steps and not present in the final food product.
Industrial Enzymes and The Environment
Enzymes can often replace chemicals or processes that present safety or environmental issues. For example, enzymes can:
- Replace acids in the starch processing industry and alkalis or oxidizing agents in fabric desizing; Reduce the use of sulphides in tanneries;
- Replace pumice stones for stonewashing jeans;
- Allow for more complete digestion of animal feed leading to less animal waste; and
- Remove stains from fabrics. Clothes can be washed at lower temperatures, thus saving energy.
Enzymes can be used instead of chlorine bleach for removing stains on cloth. The use of enzymes also allows the level of surfactants to be reduced and permits the cleaning of clothes in the absence of phosphates. Enzymes also contribute to safer working conditions through elimination of chemical treatments during production processes. For example, in starch, paper and textile processing, less hazardous chemicals are required when enzymes are used.
Application in Leather Processing
- Dehairing/bating : Hides and skins have hair attached to them that must be removed for their use as leather. The conventional way to remove hair from hides is to use harsh chemicals such as lime and sodium sulfide. These chemicals completely dissolve the hair and open up the fiber structure. With enzyme-assisted dehairing, it is possible to reduce the chemical requirements and obtain a clear product and a higher area yield with fewer chemicals in the waste waster. Since the enzyme does not dissolve hair as the chemicals do, it is possible to filter out the hair, thus reducing the chemical and biological oxygen demand of the waste water. Additionally the hides and skins contain proteins and fat between the collagen fibres that must be all or partially removed before the hides can be tanned. to make the leather pliable, it is necessary to subject the hide to an enzymatic treatment before tanning to selectively dissolve certain protein components. This is called bating.
- Degreasing of leather : Traditionally, the degreasing of sheepskins is done by solvent extraction using paraffin solvent systems. A new process based on the enzymatic breakdown of fats by a lipase enzyme has been introduced to the leather industry. The enzymatic degreasing process replaces the solvent based process. Since the enzyme interferes less with the skin structure, the enzymatic process also results in a product with improved quality, for example improved tear strength and more uniform color.
These examples are just a few of the many ways commercial enzymes touch our lives. They are tools of nature that help provide everyday products in an environmentally conscious manner. Current commercial use of enzymes, together with new applications, will continue to play an important role in maintaining and enhancing the quality of life we enjoy today while protecting the environment for generations to come.