Shifting the paradigm of biorenewable chemicals

shanksCBiRC focuses on platform technologies and new chemicals from biomass feedstocks to replace petrochemicals

When the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) was founded in 2008, its approach of combining biology and chemistry to develop sustainable biobased chemicals was a novel idea.

“At the time, we were trying decide if there was value in having people from the biological area—those who work in enzymes, proteins and microbial systems—in the same center with classical chemical conversion researchers,” explained CBiRC’s director Brent Shanks.

Six years later, it seems the partnership was indeed a good strategy.

CBiRC has more than 25 faculty researchers, numerous graduate students and 35 industry partners focused on changing the chemical industry.

One of the biggest challenges to CBiRC’s mission is that there are hundreds of products made from petroleum-based chemicals.

“A lot of organizations working on biorenewable chemicals will focus on one or two products, but it’s hard to justify the cost and time it takes to develop such a small number of products when you are dealing with a market that is so diverse,” explained Shanks, who is also Iowa State’s Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “We are striving to break away from that lone end-product mindset.”

Instead, CBiRC wants to develop a platform technology—one that can be developed and then simply exploited to make a range of different products.

Shanks says novel biological intermediates give CBiRC the opportunity to make this technology a reality.

“We are using biological conversions to get to unique intermediate molecules. From there, we use chemical conversion to go to a range of different chemical products, essentially creating a star diagram, where an intermediate molecule from fermentation can make a whole range of different molecules,” he added.

One such intermediate molecule is triacetic acid lactone, which can be created through biological conversion and converted to a variety of products. An example end product created by CBiRC researchers from this platform is pogostone—an antimicrobial that has a great deal of potential but has been difficult to synthesize in the past. By starting with triacetic acid lactone, pogostone was developed in one step.

While CBiRC’s approach seems subtly different, it’s incredibly important. That one intermediate molecule can lead to solutions for high-value, specialty products as well as large-volume, low-value commodity products.

“With our technologies, we can get to families of molecules that people generally haven’t ever considered and start to examine the efficacies of these molecules to come up with some interesting options,” Shanks said.

As CBiRC researchers publish their work and get patents on technologies, the center is inspiring spin-off companies to help to move the technology forward.

There are currently six start-up companies working on a range of biorenewable chemical products. One example is Glucan Biorenewables, which is exploring how to best make organic furanic compounds such as furfural. And the other companies have similar missions—making a promising product available and accessible.

“There’s evidence this platform-technology approach will work, giving the biorenewable chemical industry a foundation for building many products. It’s exciting to consider just how much of an impact this could make,” Shanks said. CBiRC researchers develop novel biocatalysts in the interdisciplinary Biorenewables Research Laboratory.