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A Friborg start-up is developing an alternative to titanium dioxide with cellulose

Saturday 15th April 2023
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Suspected of being carcinogenic, titanium dioxide, a white dye, is used in particular in sweets. It has been banned from foods in Switzerland and Europe since last year. Start-ups are trying to find substitutes.

Medicines and cosmetic preparations are also threatened with banning because they contain titanium dioxide, a pigment used for its properties of shine, whiteness and opacity.

"There are two ways: either we manage to do without this substance and that's all the better. Either we cannot do without it and in this case, we must find a substitution which is not harmful to health”, estimated the general secretary of the French-speaking Consumer Federation Sophie Michaud-Gigon in the 7:30 p.m. from RTS last week.

>> Reread: Also called E171, titanium dioxide definitively banned from food

Replaced by cellulose

The Friborg start-up Seprify (previously Impossible Materials) took up the subject and raised 3.4 million francs to develop an alternative based on plant cellulose. Cellulose is the main constituent of plants and is commercially available in sheets. The material is dissolved, then it undergoes a special chemical treatment before being dried.

In addition to being 100% natural, this cellulose powder has another advantage, explains the director of the start-up: "Obtaining white in a preparation is not difficult. What is important is to achieve this with very thin layers, therefore very little material. We found a solution. We can thus offer our customers a safer and cheaper material.

A market of 16 billion dollars per year

The stakes are so high that investors and cosmetics and pharmaceutical giants refuse to openly discuss their interests. The titanium dioxide market is worth $16 billion per year.

"I think there is a big market at the business level since we have to respond to consumer demands and also to the regulatory needs of States. There is therefore a huge market for replacing cellulose with titanium dioxide,” notes Eric-Olivier Pallu, expert from the European Commission.

Upcoming production line

In mid-March, the young company from Friborg went to a major start-up fair in Paris to convince its first industrial clients.

“We are attracting a lot of interest. But much remains to be done to establish massive production of the white pigment. We are therefore investing in a pilot production line,” informs Lukas Schertel, director of the company from the University of Fribourg.

This pilot installation will be set up in Marly, near Fribourg, in the former premises of Ilford. For 50 years, the company produced tons of photo paper, also made of cellulose.


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