Skip to Content

Your Location Within Site:

Lipid chemistry

Lipid chemistry

Turning raw materials into high-value New Zealand products

IRL lipids research is opening up new export markets for high-value products derived from New Zealand’s commodity, waste products and biotechnology industries.

Industry need


Lipids are a large and diverse group of naturally occurring organic compounds. The group includes fatty acids and their derivatives and substances related biosynthetically or functionally to these compounds. 

Lipids are effective in the treatment of disease, and can also play a role in combating the effects of aging on the skin, reducing the impact of dementia, maintaining bone health and helping development and growth in children.  A major source of these compounds are raw materials from New Zealand’s primary production sector including dairy products, meat, seafood, fruits and plants, as well as the waste streams that result from processing these raw materials. 

New Zealand’s dairy, meat, seafood, and primary sector industries all aim to move up the value chain by adding high-value, products to their commercial offerings and protecting the intellectual property underpinning them.  Complex lipids are one such set of products.    

The research

IRL has been doing research into lipids since the early 1990s. Current research includes studies into bioactive eicosanois, phospholipids, glycolipids, sphingolipids, and ether lipids of marine and terrestrial organisms. This includes work into extraction, isolation, purification, structures elucidation, and enzymatic and chemical modifications

IRL’s integrated bioactive technology (IBT) team has developed a close relationship with the primary production sector as a result of its lipids research. There is strong backing from industry for current FRST[?]-funded research into technologies to produce a wider range of high-value, next-generation lipid products for export. Four main New Zealand business partners – Fonterra. Nutrizeal, Photonz and Hokotehi Moriori Trust – are contributing $1.8 million in co-funding to the programme over its six year lifetime.  Other business partners include Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd (AFL), Zespri, Seperex Nutritionals, The University of Auckland, Living Nature and Lactopharma. 

The IBT team is made up of five researchers with expertise in extraction, purification, modification and advanced analysis of complex lipids, phospholipids, glycolipids, sphingolipids, fatty acids, eicosanoids, ether lipids, and structure elucidation of novel lipids.

When required, IRL works collaboratively with partner organisations, including Trinity Bioactives Ltd, the University of Otago, the Malaghan Institute, Massey University and The University of Auckland.

Economic benefits

In the 1990s, IRL’s lipid chemistry team trialled a process to isolate the complex lipids that are present in minute quantities in raw milk. They went on to concentrate them to 4,000 times their normal strength and produced a paste that sold for thousands of dollars per kilogram when it was commercialised in 1998. The paste was used in the manufacture of dietetic and nutraceutical products as well as in high value functional foods.

The team is also developing high-value ingredients from fish waste. In collaboration with the University of Otago’s Wellington School of Medicine bioactivity investigation group, IRL staff developed a dietary supplement made from a concentrated extract of shark flesh that had been shown to help prevent blood vessel formation.  The raw material comes mostly from sharks caught as by-catch in deep sea long-line fishing for tuna, a resource that would otherwise be wasted.  This research resulted in a patent and the licensing of “Super Maco” to Aotea Pacific, and it is now used as an anti-cancer treatment in Japan.  Both IRL and the University of Otago have received royalties of over $150,000 each from the licence agreement.

Lipid research at IRL has contributed to the growing health ingredients and functional foods industry in New Zealand.  A study of the sector was undertaken in 2005 for Investment New Zealand by New Nutrition Business Ltd. It found conservative estimates of sales in health ingredients of $53 million a year while sales of functional foods were estimated at $270 million a year.  More than half of production was exported, with Asia the largest market.   The same study named IRL among the top five specialist R&D organisations collaborating with health ingredients and functional foods companies. 

The polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) concentrates, polyunsaturated fatty acids and specialist complex lipids that are being targeted by IRL research have strong export potential. They are estimated to be earning export revenue of between $25 to $75 million by 2013, building to between $50 and $150 million by 2017.  These figures include income from processing the lipids in New Zealand using the environmentally friendly proprietary supercritical fluid extraction technology developed by IRL.