Essential oils to combat insect-borne diseases
A James Cook University team working in collaboration with the University of New Caledonia says a simple chemical process can transform essential oils into an effective mosquito repellent.
JCU’s Associate Professor Michael Oelgemöller and Dr Marie M'Balla-Ndi have just returned from Noumea, where they discussed with local businesses the process of (solar) thermal transformation of essential oils.
Dr Oelgemöller says the problem is that current mosquito repellent based on natural oils are only effective in repelling mosquitoes for less than half an hour.
“Commercial products based on synthetic petroleum-derived chemicals will last for up to eight hours, but have been linked to health and other concerns. We instead want to give communities a sustainable product that can be produced locally, has the same potency and retains all beneficial properties of the original essential oil,” he says.
They visited small-scale natural oil refineries in New Caledonia and introduced a new technique that chemistry lecturer Dr Oelgemöller believes will make their product much more effective as a repellent.
“It’s a relatively simple method, basically kitchen chemistry, that involves heating the oils under certain conditions. There is no big capital outlay required from the refineries as they already have most of the equipment needed,” he says.
Dr M'Balla-Ndi says the industry in New Caledonia needs to be reinvigorated.
“It’s limited to a handful of artisanal distilleries generally unable to compete with imported products. This is not only about chemistry, it’s also about sustainable development, the idea is to add value to their production,” she said.
Dr M'Balla-Ndi says the public debate about climate change and pollution has seen some major shifts in community thinking in regards to sustainability and environmental resilience.
“These changes in public attitude have placed significant pressure on the chemical industry to move to using renewable energy sources and sustainable starting materials,” she says.
Dr Oelgemöller adds that the essential oil producers in Australia face similar challenges in product diversification and value adding.
“That makes this process attractive for northern Queensland as well,” he says.
“The climate, sun, and flora in New Caledonia are very similar to those in Townsville. As a tropical island they also have mosquitoes and the health and social problems that come with them.
“So it’s an obvious place to run a project of this type and size,” he says.
The project in New Caledonia was funded by the French Embassy’s ‘Fonds Pacifiques’, and the team is also looking for seed funding to further develop the necessary operational protocols for limited production units in either New Caledonia, or Queensland, and ultimately, in other Pacific islands facing similar challenges.