TNO has patented a method that should enable the large-scale, profitable production of organic acids from biomass anaerobically (without the use of oxygen). This means not only energy savings and much less emission but also larger-scale and cheaper production. The chemical building blocks for making plastics and coatings, for example, are currently derived from petroleum.
In a study of the properties of yeast , a team of TNO experts discovered a new metabolic route. A normal biological route in fungi is known as the citric acid or TCA cycle, which plays a central role in the conversion of sugars into organic acids but this always requires oxygen. By making genetic changes in fungi , TNO researchers managed to activate a "sleeping" route that strongly resembles the TCA cycle. The advantage of this route is that organic acids can be produced anaerobically.
The discovery is such a breakthrough that TNO immediately filed a patent application. If TNO succeeds in developing the method further, it could be a significant contribution to making the chemical industry more sustainable. This means no more need for oxygen in the production of the organic acids that are the building blocks for a whole range of plastics. Energy consumption will be drastically reduced and production can be scaled up: the result is more productivity for less money. The maximum production capacity of an oxygen-dependent production processes is 250 cubic metres while the maximum production capacity of an oxygen-independent process can be up to 1500 cubic metres. Apart from the financial savings, the method could reduce the greenhouse effect because oxygen may be replaced by the pollutants carbon dioxide or nitrate.
The production of organic acids from biomass is not profitable in most cases. Making sugars from biomass to ultimately convert them into organic acids is a complex and expensive production process. The TNO method makes it possible to produce all kinds of molecules and is not therefore restricted to a single acid, which opens up a whole range of applications. Using this method, a large variety of acids can be produced, and derivatives, from the citric acid cycle, like lysine and fatty acids, which are regularly being used by the pharmaceutical industry.
The chemical industry stands to benefit because it is dependent on oil to make the building blocks for plastics and more. The same applies to the pharmaceutical industry, suppliers of raw materials, fermentation companies and plant builders. TNO will be collaborating with the industry to develop the method further in a research program called "High-yield Acid Production Program" (Hy APP).