Skip to content

ISSE Seed Projects: Renewable Production of Chemical Feedstocks and Value-Added Chemicals

Team: Joseph Bozell and Nicole Labbe, Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries; Brian Long, Chemistry; and CongTrinh, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. This project was jointly funded with the Sustainable Energy Education & Research Center [SEERC]

2014-2015 Report

Converting renewable carbon (agricultural materials, forest resources, etc.) into high-value organic chemicals (HVOs) is of key importance to the success of the emerging biorefining industry. The ability to integrate the production of these high value chemicals along with high-volume, low value biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass will result in an overall profitable operation that will also reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign supplies of strategic raw materials. Additionally, the environmental footprint of their chemical manufacture will be diminished and their contribution to the domestic rural economy of the nation’s industrial sector will be dramatically increased. With the joint support of the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE) and the Sustainable Energy Education and Research Center (SEERC), we have assembled a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team of chemists and biochemical engineers from the Center for Renewable Carbon to tackle these issues.

Our collaborative research team has advanced fundamental knowledge regarding the interaction between catalytic and biocatalytic systems with respect to the conversion of biomass, specifically carbohydrates and lignin, into useful feedstocks and materials. First, we have successfully demonstrated a methodology by which the Krebs cycle in Yarrowia lipolytica can be engineered “mid-stream” to overproduce alpha-ketoglutaric acid (KGA) as the single product from cellulose. Second, the KGA produced by the engineered Yarrowia lipolytica has proven to be an ideal chemical target for conversion into useful biomaterials, and we have demonstrated proof-of-principle experiments that KGA may be converted into useful bio-based polymers. Lastly, we have recently reported the first ever synthesis of enantiomerically pure lignin model compounds. Ready access to these compounds is of significant importance to be able to understand how lignin is broken down by both chemical and biochemical means.

graph of productivity and yields
Productivity and yields of KGA generated by Y. lipolytics
diagram of process
Synthesis of enantiomerically pure lignin model compounds

2013-2014 Report

Biobased products will provide the economic incentive required to support a robust biorefining industry. Integrating production of these high-value chemicals with high-volume, low-value biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass will result in an overall profitable operation. This helps reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign supplies of strategic raw materials, diminish the environmental footprint of chemical manufacture and dramatically increase the contribution of the domestic rural economy to the nation’s industrial sector. By realizing this high potential impact, our multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team of chemists and biochemical engineers from the Center for Renewable Carbon (CRC: Professors Nicole Labbe and Joseph Bozell), UT Depts of Chemistry (Professor Brian Long) and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (Professor Cong T. Trinh) are gathered to develop an integrated chemical and biocatalytic processes for rapid, cost-effective transformation of biomass (cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin) into high-value products while also generating fundamental knowledge regarding interaction of the catalytic and biocatalytic systems with carbohydrates and lignin.

Our goals are:

  • To establish chemical catalysis and biocatalysis as the standard for rapid, cost-effective transformation of biorefinery carbohydrates and lignin into high value products
  • To generate fundamental knowledge regarding interaction of catalytic systems with carbohydrates and lignin
  • To tailor organisms for the biochemical production of critical biorefinery platforms from carbohydrates and lignin

The impacts of the research are:

  • The integration of chemical and biological catalysis will significantly improve the ability of the biorefinery to convert the building blocks of nature into high value chemical products
  • Bioproducts development will be critical to the growth of a viable biorefining industry
  • Incorporation of biobased products expertise as a core capability within the CRC and the UT community will offer significant broader impacts.

Program outcomes

Proposals resulting from collaboration:

  • Trinh/Labbé: “Biocatalyst design for simultaneous saccharification and fermentation to produce biochemical and biofuels from ionic liquid-activated lignocellulosic biomass,” to NSF, $449,590 (not awarded)
  • Bozell/Long/Trinh: “Catalytic Activation of Renewable Materials (CARMa) - Fundamental Science to Enable the Integrated Biorefinery,” $2,999,125 (not awarded)
  • Bozell/Labbé/Long/Trinh: “Purchase of a new Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) for the ISSE program in catalytic transformations of renewable carbon,” ISSE program, $97,341 (awarded)
  • Bozell/Long: “Site selective catalysis for the structural modification of biorefinery carbohydrates and lignin” to NSF catalysis section $474,947 (not awarded)
  • Bozell: “Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio),” to DOE/BES, $1,500,000 (awarded June 2014)
  • Bozell: “Nucleophilic iron catalysts for functionalization of carbohydrates” to ACS/PRF $110,000 (not awarded)
  • Trinh: “Enabling Direct Microbial Biotransformation of Methane and Derived Methanol to Valuable Biochemicals and Biofuels by Yarrowia Lipolytica” to NSF/EAGER $197,046 (awarded)
  • All: upcoming opportunities will be pursued within USDA/AFRI, DOE/BES, DOE/BETO and NSF (e. g. GOALI program)

2012-2013 Report

Biobased products will provide the economic incentive required to support a robust biorefining industry. Integrating production of these high value chemicals with high-volume, low value biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass will result in an overall profitable operation that also reduces the nation’s dependence on foreign supplies of strategic raw materials, diminishes the environmental footprint of chemical manufacture and dramatically increases the contribution of the domestic rural economy to the nation’s industrial sector. By realizing this high potential impact, a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team of chemists and biochemical engineers from the Center for Renewable Carbon (Professors Nicole Labbe and Joseph Bozell), UT Departments of Chemistry (Professor Brian Long) and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (Professor Cong T. Trinh) are gathered to develop an integrated chemical and biocatalytic processes for rapid, cost-effective transformation of biomass (cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin) into high-value products (Figure 1) while also generating fundamental knowledge regarding interaction of the catalytic and biocatalytic systems with carbohydrates and lignin.

Starting January 2013, with the financial support of ISSE and UT’s Sustainable Energy Education and Research Center (SEERC), the team has recruited talented and motivated postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Significant progress by this highly collaborative team will have significant impact on the biorefining economy, enabling them to seek external funding resources, and publish scientific findings in high-impact journals. A team lead by Drs. Labbe and Trinh have been working to metabolically engineer a novel, robust, and efficient microbial biocatalyst Yarrowia lipolytica that can produce high levels of alpha-ketoglutaric acid (KGA) from sugars and grow in a solution of at least 10% of 1-ethyl-3-methyl imidazolium acetate [Emim][OAc], an ionic liquid. Currently, the team is investigating the capability of this microbial biocatalyst to produce KGA from enzyme-treated cellulose in ionic liquids and further engineer the strain to convert cellulose directly into KGA. Meanwhile, a team lead by Drs. Long and Bozell, have synthesized a large number of lignin dimers and oligomers and are exploring the catalytic modification of those lignin models, as well as carbohydrates for the production of high-value organics. Additionally, with the support of ISSE and UTIA, the team has recently acquired a state-of-the art Agilent gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer that significantly increases the group’s analytical capability.

The team is positioned to combine both chemical and biochemical catalysis for the production of high-value products. Additionally, they are currently in the process of pursuing external, multi-investigator funding through agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

diagram of process
Integrated chemical and biocatalytic processes for rapid, cost-effective transformation of lignocellulosic biomass into valuable products. HVOs: high value organics, e.g., diols, fumaric acid, succinic acid, 2-ketoglutaric acid, glutamate, malic acid, and aromatic molecules.