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Piperine and Ginger Leaves: Turning to the Chemistry of Natural Products for Healthcare and Biodiesel Production
Scientists are developing ways to exploit the therapeutic potential of black pepper for medicine and the catalytic properties of ginger leaves for biodiesel production.

Exploring potential applications of natural and sustainable resources in the fields of healthcare and energy, researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) are devising ways to harness the therapeutic potential of black pepper and utilise the catalytic properties of ginger leaves for biodiesel production.

While mostly known for its pungent and stinging quality, piperine, the major bioactive component of black pepper, offers numerous beneficial therapeutic properties including its ability to confer anti-cancer, anti-depressant, and anti-inflammatory effects. It has also been shown to reduce fever and modulate the immune system. However, the biological applications of piperine are limited due to its poor solubility in fluids, which prevents it from being effectively absorbed and used by the body.

Now, a research group, led by Suk Fun Chin at UNIMAS’s Faculty of Resource Science and Technology, has discovered a method to carry and slowly release piperine in the human body by using modified starch nanoparticles. Chin and her team modified starch using an acetylation reaction and successfully synthesised starch acetate, which was then slowly precipitated in a solution of ethanol to form starch acetate nanoparticles. Through experiments, the scientists discovered that they could load piperine onto the starch acetate nanoparticles better than onto non-modified starch nanoparticles. The team also observed that piperine was released by starch acetate at a slower rate over 24 hours, compared to non-modified starch nanoparticles, which released the compound over 16 hours.

“We think there is potential for using starch acetate nanoparticles loaded with piperine as a food supplement for the compound’s health-related properties,” said Chin. The findings were published in the journal Starch.

Similarly working to develop nature-based solutions, Mohammad Omar Abdullah and his colleagues at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Energy Sustainability, have developed novel ginger leaf-based solid catalysts for biodiesel production.

With the ever-growing threat of air pollution and climate change, many economies have been searching for less damaging alternatives to replace petroleum-based fuels like gasoline and diesel, the most popular of which are biofuels. Considered to be less toxic and biodegradable, the combustion of biodiesel generates fewer air pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and sulphur dioxide.

To produce biodiesel, oils and fats must be converted into fatty acid methyl ester. At present, this chemical reaction is catalysed by compounds that are in the same phase as their reactants where both the oil and catalysts are in liquid form. However, separating the catalysts afterwards for reuse is a costly process.

Noticing this gap, Abdullah and his team seized the opportunity to use a heterogeneous, and therefore separable and reusable, catalyst made from waste ginger leaves. In their study, the scientists leveraged different approaches to activate the ginger leaf catalysts and tested a variety of reaction times.

“Catalysts derived from agricultural waste are biodegradable and non-toxic,” said Abdullah. “More efficient processes for the use of waste ginger leaves as catalysts for biodiesel production could reduce the cost of biodiesel and make it more sustainable.”

To determine whether the reaction remains economical, they examined the process’ energy input and output, from which they found one method that produced the highest yield of biodiesel, albeit it was not the most energy- or cost-efficient. Evidently, further studies are needed to refine the catalytic approaches before applying them in the industry, but the study’s findings have brought us one step closer to achieving greener and more sustainable living.

Source: Chin et al. (2021). Starch Acetate Nanoparticles as Controlled Release Nanocarriers for Piperine. Starch - Stärke, 73(11-12), p. 2100054.

John et al. (2021). Techno-economical and energy analysis of sunflower oil biodiesel synthesis assisted with waste ginger leaves derived catalysts. Renewable Energy, 168, 815-828.

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