Betulin a powdery substance in the outer bark of the birch tree is already used as a cosmetic ingredient. It has also been shown to help wounds heal faster and cut inflammation. But the compound is often lost once birch trees are harvested for lumber.
NaturNorth Technologies, formed in 2000 by Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), claims that this is about to change.Potlatch and Synertec claim it can provide at least 100,000 pounds of birch bark daily and instead of being burnt, the nutrient-rich bark will be passed on to NaturNorth and the betulin extracted.
"We literally can get tons of this stuff a day," said Robert Carlson, a university chemistry professor who is working on the project.
NaturNorth already offers the pure compounds found in the bark to companies such as Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Almay and has recently signed a contract to supply International Specialty Products, a New Jersey company that sells specialty chemicals and mineral products to cosmetic companies.
Once the betulin compounds are isolated, scientists can produce new derivatives of Betulin to expand the range of its potential use for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. NaturNorth scientists have already patented a way to convert betulin to betulinic acid, which Unilever has already patented for use in its cosmetic products.
Betulinic acid has been explored as a potential treatment for skin cancer for more than a decade. Pure betulin, its derivatives and other birch bark compounds are also being tested for effectiveness in treating HIV and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause severe cold-like symptoms and pneumonia.
Birch World in Moscow has also developed a method of isolating betulin from birch bark and has successfully been producing commercial quantities for nine months. Birch World sells cosmetics and food supplements containing betulin in Europe and Japan but as yet has no North American customers.