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Perfume of basil

First batch of linalool extracted from the leaves of the plant, the coveted essential oil, is purchased by Canada

Basil oil can replace synthetic linalool in cosmetics and perfumes

With its small, fragrant leaves, basil is known for its many uses in the kitchen. It is now ready to enter into the composition of perfumes based on linalool, an essential oil present in its leaves. The first commercial batch of the basil oil (Ocimum basilicum), with 40 kilos of the product, was exported to a Canadian perfumery company at the end of last year. The production was agreed, after months of negotiation, with Linax, a small company installed in Votuporanga, a town in São Paulo, which produced the oil in a way that is without precedent in the country. Before the purchase, perfumers analyzed the quality of the product, which also underwent chemical analyses carried out in Brazil and in Canada.

The research that led to the product was run by agronomist engineer Nilson Borlina Maia, from the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC) and started in 1998, when the researcher began a comparative study with 18 plants that contain linalool, funded by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). To start with, he was looking for an alternative to extracting the oil of rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), an Amazonian tree that runs the risk of extinction and is the main natural source to the product (please see Pesquisa Fapesp nº 111).

In spite of not having managed to find a plant that has an oil so rich in linalool as that discovered in rosewood, which reaches 90% and has an unmistakable blend of aromas, Maia managed to get a natural, economically viable, oil that can replace the synthetic oil in many formulations for cosmetics, perfumes and other products for hygiene and beauty, and even to open up a field for creating new fragrances.

Agronomic potential
Amongst the plants analyzed by the researcher, besides basil, were coriander, bay leaves, cinnamon and oranges. In the case of the bay leaves, in spite of showing a high percentage of the essential oil, they were discarded because the tree takes dozens of years to become adult, which makes its cultivation for commercial exploitation unviable. Then coriander and cinnamon did not show any linalool, while oranges have a low level of the substance. “Amongst the plants analyzed, I saw that basil had more agronomic potential for extracting the linalool, for the oil content shown and because it is a plant with a short cycle”, Maia says.

The results of the research were presented publicly for the first time in 2001, at the 26th Congress of the International Society for Horticultural Science, held in Toronto, in Canada. The work was one of the four chosen, amongst hundreds sent in, to be presented as a highlight. When he went back to Brazil after the congress was held, Maia reckoned that a cycle had been concluded and he was getting ready to start a new agronomic study.

The plans changed when he received a phone call from José Roberto Gonçalves, a small businessman from Votuporanga, a town located about 520 kilometers from the São Paulo capital, who had read in a newspaper on economics a note about the study carried out with basil. The conversation with Gonçalves resulted in the opening of a company, Linax Comércio de Óleos Essenciais, for it to be possible to take the project forward with funding from FAPESP’s the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE).

The product made it feasible to produce seedlings on a large scale, to make it possible to set up commercially viable crops for producing basil. The first seedlings taken to the field were of the ‘maria-bonita’ variety, developed at the Federal University of Sergipe by Professor Arie Fitzgerald Blank, with purple inflorescences instead of the traditional white ones. Although this variety shows up to 70% of linalool, the cultivation did not prosper on account of the irrigations in the winter  and rainfall in the summer in the region, and it was attacked by fungus. “This delayed the development of the project a bit”, Maia says.

Rapid growth
The choice befell a variety found amongst the many that the IAC maintains in its collection, although without identification. To differentiate it from the ‘maria-bonita’, agricultural technician Fabiano Taveira dos Santos, from Piauí, who when planting started was doing an attachment to the IAC’s Aromatic Plants Section, started calling it ‘lampião’, the name by which it was known amongst those taking part in the project. In spite of having a far lower linalool content, between 35% and 40%, the variety is very rustic, resistant to diseases and grows rapidly in the field. This characteristic of rapid growth surprised the researcher, who had to redo the estimates for production and for the number of rural producers involved in the project.

To start with, the expectation was for a production of 15 tons per hectare, harvested twice a year. Today, this same volume is attained in around 70 days, depending on variables like fertilizing, soil, rainfall and the time picked. “Besides the variety responding well in the field, we selected farmers who had the possibility of working with irrigation, which reduces the time between the harvests of the plant”, Maia says. “Instead of two harvests a year, we can do four, one every 90 days.” Accordingly, the annual production, originally estimated at 30 tons per hectare, is double the volume and reaches 60 tons a hectare.

Today, there are four fixed rural producers that are working to supply the raw material to Linax, all installed in the Votuporanga region, which brings together the ideal conditions of a hot climate and soil for cultivating aromatic plants. The limitation of water in the winter can be gotten round with irrigation. The main problem observed up until now is rainfall in excess, above all in the summer, which prevents going into the field to pick the plants. Other producers have now put themselves forward as candidates, but, before hiring new suppliers, the company wants to open up new markets for the product.

The idea is to expand the planted area from 30 to 200 hectares. To do so, the domestic consumer market needs to be won over, besides the foreign one. As Brazil is not a traditional producer of essential oils, many consumers here prefer to import the product to guarantee a regular supply and better prices. The exception is orange essential oil, in which the country occupies the world leadership in its production, but as a byproduct of the citrus industry. Another oil produced in great volume in Brazil is eucalyptus oil, also a byproduct, of the timber industry.

Before starting to plant the basil, the producers were given cuttings multiplied at the IAC by the micropropagation technique. They were also given instructions on how to plant and handle the crop. Some agronomic aspects of planting have not yet been scientifically established, such as, for example, the most suitable spacing. “In spite of specific tests being carried out, it has still not been possible to get the results and to make them public, which normally takes from five to six years”, says Maia.

The answers to these questions have arisen from practice, that is to say, when the tops of the plants begin to meet is the moment for harvesting, because otherwise they begin to compete for light, and the leaves from the lower part begin to fall. The cut is done at the base of the plant, almost at ground level. For the time being, this task is done manually, because the planted area is not extensive. But mechanization is being studied.

The cut basil sprouts again, and productivity increases with every cut, because the plant ramifies. The same plant remains in the field for two or three years. Only after this period does it have to be replaced by another cloned cutting. Planting from seed is not recommended, because of the variation in the linalool content.

After the harvest is done, the basil is put into a cart designed for taking the leaves straight from the plantation to the factory, without needing to unload the material. The oil is extracted directly in the cart, which significantly reduces operating costs. The system has aroused the interest of traditional companies extracting essential oils, such as eucalyptus oil.

To facilitate the work of essential oil extraction in the research laboratories, Maia created a mini-still made of stainless steel to stand up to the chemical and physical aggressions. In the conventional apparatuses, made of glass and difficult to handle, the work of loading and unloading the vegetable material takes an hour on average. With the mini-still, the same task takes about one minute, and the distilling is controlled by an automated electrical system.

Doubled efficiency
As the distillation takes about an hour with any kind of equipment, the time spent on loading and unloading the glass apparatus has been eliminated. “This has doubled the efficiency of the distillation”, says Maia. Presented at the 3rd Brazilian Essential Oils Symposium, held in Campinas in November last year, the novelty was well received. One company has already bought the apparatus, and some universities are in the process of negotiating with Linax, as well as compounding pharmacies that work with essential oils intended for perfumes. The price comes to between R$ 5,500.00 and R$ 5,800.00, depending on the accessories included. The equipment works with electricity, but it can be adapted to natural gas, to be used in the field.

Linax’s industrial plant was designed to receive produce from organic planting, without the application of agrochemicals, separately from the non-organic, so as to cater to foreign markets that want differentiated products. But this is another stage of production. For the time being, besides producing essential basil oil, the company has been standing out as a provider of services, Several customers, from towns within a range of up to 300 kilometers, have taken plants to be distilled there. They are suppliers to the cosmetics industry, compounding pharmacies and researchers.

Even with the good results already presented, the research with basil is not stopping here. Other varieties, with a greater yield of oil and more resistant to diseases, continue to be tested. Furthermore, other species of aromatic plants, like lemon grass and patchouli, are being evaluated for planting by farmers from the region. The idea is to transform Votuporanga into an aroma center, capable of planting and extracting essential oil and of guaranteeing a regular supply both to the domestic market and to the foreign market.

Orange oil leads exports

The commercial exploitation of essential oils in Brazil started in the 1920s, based on the gathering of native essences, in particular from rosewood. In the course of the Second World War, taking advantage of the demand from factories that could not be attended to by the traditional producers, Brazil started to introduce cultures to get oil from mint, oranges, cinnamon, eucalyptus, lemon grass and patchouli. In the 1970’s, it went so far as occupy the world leadership in the production of menthol and dementholised oil, used as aromatizers in the hygiene and food industries, with the creation at the Agronomic Institute of a rust-resistant variety of Mentha arvensis.

Today, Brazil occupies the world leadership in the orange essential oil trade, with 33 thousand tons exported in the 2004/2005 crop. From January to October last year, exports of 60 thousand tons earned the country US$ 80 million.

Many essential oils used in cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs and beverages are obtained synthetically, for economic reasons. But the demand for products extracted from plants, like the linalool from basil, has grown a lot. Furthermore, the companies, mainly from the cosmetics and perfumery sector, have shown an interest in new essential oils.

“This is a good opportunity for Brazil, which has the greatest plant diversity on the planet”, says a researcher from the IAC, Márcia Ortiz Marques, and a member of the working group created to take care of the formalization of the Brazilian Association of Essential Oil Producers. “This is because, despite being a relevant activity for Brazil, the sector is uncoordinated”, she says. The producer does not know what the market needs. While the market is looking for producers that supply with quality, price and regularity.

The Project
Production of linalool from basil essential oil — an ecologically sustainable alternative to replace linalool from rosewood, an Amazonian species at risk (nº 02/13051-8); Modality The Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Nilson Borlina Maia — Agronomic Institute of Campinas/Linax; Investment R$ 400,000.00 (Fapesp)