Combining Chemical and Biological Processing to Make Ingredients Used for Manufacturing Everyday Products

Achievement date: 

Researchers at the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Iowa State University, have combined chemical catalysts with catalysts that occur in nature. This development represents important progress toward producing an acid that is a widely used ingredient in manufacturing consumer items like clothing and plastic bottles.


Terephthalic acid (TPA) is a commodity chemical, tens of millions of tons of which are produced annually as inputs to manufacturing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for polyester fibers and packaging applications, such as liquid containers. All current TPA production is based on petroleum—a fact that makes CBiRC's search for bio-based pathways to cyclic chemicals that can serve as   “platform compounds” unusually promising. These compounds are known as intermediates, which in turn can be converted into many chemicals having commercial value.  “Developing commercially viable bio-based substitutes for petrochemicals is an enormous challenge,” according to CBiRC's Director, Dr. Brent Shanks (see C&EN article referenced below).


This opportunity to develop TPA emerged from CBiRC's research program focused on generalized bio-based approaches to transforming carbohydrate feed-stocks into bio-renewable chemicals (see accompanying figure). Dr. Shanks explained this capability with an example: “Carbohydrates can be selectively deoxygenated to a given platform compound and then upgraded to valuable products by using a bio-catalyst on the front end and a chemical catalyst on the back end.”

CBiRC views the TPA development as a major market opportunity with broad applications. This view appears to be correct because academic researchers are not the only ones interested in the combined chemical and biological (hybrid) processing. Companies, including some of the many CBiRC industrial partners, have also expressed interest.

[Reference: Jacoby, Mitch. Teaming Up for Biobased  Chemicals. C&EN Chicago. August 6, 2012, pp 37-38.]