Reinventing the Olive: Oil, Drugs and Biodiesel

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Increased olive oil production has led to water pollution in the Mediterranean, but a group of Israeli scientists have found a way to reuse this waste. Brian Clark Howard reports from southern Israel.

Brian Clark Howard, Olives, Olive Oil, Israel

As the production of olive oil is rapidly increasing, so is waste. Only 20 percent of the mass of an olive is currently useful. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

“We want to know the olive,” Professor Zeev Wiesman said with gusto, in his thick Israeli accent. “We want to see what compounds we can extract from it,” he explained.

Wiesman held up a bottle of olive oil, as the bright Israeli sun glinted off the reused glass. The liquid inside was a perfect golden green. Bottles of olives were stacked on shelves behind the professor. Petri dishes and a mass spectrometer crowded workbenches.

Wiesman is head of the Phyto-Lipid Biotechnology Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel, and he was giving a tour of his research space to a group of visiting journalists. Wiesman is also a member of the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering.

Phyto-Lipid Biotechnology Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Professor Zeev Wiesman, Brian Clark Howard

Professor Zeev Wiesman, head of the Phyto-Lipid Biotechnology Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

Wiesman has been studying olive oil for years, and he has been using some of his intimate knowledge to give back to the surrounding communities. He has been teaching poor Bedouin olive growers to improve the quality of their oils, and to market their new premium product to a developed world that is increasingly hungry for the heart-healthy oil.

But Wiesman and his grad students are most interested in unlocking the olive’s chemical secrets and putting them to use in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and biofuel industries.

READ: How Biofuel is Produced

According to Wiesman, there’s a strong need, because olive oil production is increasingly rapidly throughout the Mediterranean, where the olive tree originated from, as well as in South Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand and California.

Trouble is, only 20 percent of the mass of an olive is currently useful. Yaakov Knoll, a grad student in Wiesman’s lab, explained that 50 to 55 percent of an olive’s mass becomes what’s called “pomace” after processing. The balance is made up mostly of water, with traces of phenols in it.

Too much pomace is a bad thing, because it can pollute waterways and groundwater with too much nutrients and organic compounds. This is exactly what’s happening in parts of Israel and in bigger olive producing countries like Spain. Thousands of olive processing plants means millions of tons of pomace, which is often left in big piles.

Wiesman’s team is trying to develop economically viable alternative uses for pomace, so olive farmers can solve their disposal issue and make a little extra money on the side. The first step is to better get to “know” the olive. Wiesman said he hopes some of the phenols, vitamin E and other antioxidants and bio-active compounds might have uses in cosmetics or drugs.

Greener Biodiesel

“We can use the lipids in the waste to make biodiesel, and we can take the organic material that’s left from that and ferment it into ethanol. That contains more energy than corn,” Wiesman said. “Everyone is looking for energy sources to replace petrol.”

READ: Study Claims Biofuel Production May Increase World Hunger

If you don’t remember from high school chemistry, a lipid is a broad category of organic (carbon containing) compound that includes fats, waxes, oils, sterols (like cholesterol), fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E and K), and the fatty acids, which are important building blocks for life.

Putting their research into action, Wiesman’s team is already helping poor farmers in Algeria, Libya and Sudan make biodiesel. Knoll’s work is specifically focused on wringing as much energy as possible out of biodiesel. “Fifteen to twenty percent of olives taken to mill are dropped, and that represents another opportunity,” Knoll added.

In order to make R&D more efficient, Wiesman’s team developed a faster way to analyze the precise chemical composition of an olive — or bean or other agricultural material. In fact, when we visited, Wiesman’s group was testing some castor bean seeds for an Israeli biotech company, who wanted to know which of their 10,000 seeds had the highest oil content before they started planting.

“That would have taken years, so we developed a prediction model that would only take a few weeks,” said Wiesman. “We published that for science.”

Wiesman also mentioned that toxic ricin can be extracted from the lowly castor bean – a fact that was recently exploited to high drama in the TV show “Breaking Bad.”

Olives are stored in glass jars in Professor Zeev Wiesman's lab in southern Israel. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

Adapting a Medical Technology

Normally, when someone wanted to analyze an olive, they had to crush it up with toxic, potentially dangerous solvents, then wait 24 hours. But Wiesman can “know” what’s in an olive in 16 seconds. The secret, he explained, is adapting medical MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology.

“Doctors use MRI to study the brain, and it tells lipids from water,” Wiesman said. “That’s similar to the lipids in olives.”

Just as doctors don’t have to crush your head to see what’s inside it, Wiesman’s team doesn’t have to crush a single olive. Instead, they put it in a tabletop machine about the size of a laser printer, a low-resolution NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) device. Instead of getting an image as the output, like medical MRIs, they get numerical readouts. The group worked with computer scientists from Ben-Gurion University and a professor from Stanford to come up with software to interpret the data.

The team hopes their work will lead to new discoveries for medicine and consumer products and more efficient agriculture. They have been collaborating with Bedouin, Palestinian and Jordanian researchers, as well as biotech companies. Another grad student in the lab, Shirley Berman, is working on other new uses for the NMR machine.

In addition to the olive, Wiesman is turning his attention to pomegranate oil. “It’s a very interesting oil, unlike many others. We’re looking at it for possible use in pharmaceuticals,” he said.

Israel has been going through a pomegranate revival, with the fruit popping up all over the place, at juice bars and cosmetics counters, and the trees growing every which way. As we heard several times on the trip, pomegranate is one of the seven fruits mentioned in the Bible, and it has grown in the region for millennia.

Editor’s Note: Award-winning journalist Murray Fromson and the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev covered the travel expenses of this reporter.

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