Issue Date: June 27, 2011
Small-Business Award: BioAmber, Minneapolis
Industrial biotechnology firm BioAmber, headquartered in Minneapolis, garnered the Small-Business Award for developing a biosynthetic route to succinic acid. This achievement is being recognized as the first commercial production of a petroleum-based industrial chemical at lower cost by using a microbial fermentation process.
“More than ever, the chemical industry is looking for ways to attenuate the impact of cost fluctuations in fossil-fuel feedstocks,” says biochemist Jean-François Huc, BioAmber’s president and chief executive officer. “Biobased succinic acid is one answer.”
Succinic acid, HO2C(CH2)2CO2H, is an organic diacid naturally produced by most living organisms as an intermediate in the Krebs cycle. It’s made synthetically by hydrogenation of maleic acid, or it is recovered as an ester from a by-product stream in the production of the commodity chemical adipic acid. Succinic acid and its derivatives are broadly used in foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and polymers.
To bring biobased succinic acid to market, BioAmber licensed an engineered Escherichia coli strain from the Department of Energy and worked with business partners to build a commercially viable process around it, Huc explains. The microbe had been optimized to produce succinate salts from sugar and carbon dioxide. With 25% of the carbon in the product coming from CO2, overall the biosynthesis consumes CO2 rather than generating it.
BioAmber teamed with French firm Agro Industries Recherche et Developpement (ARD) to design and implement a large-scale continuous fermentation process to produce succinate, as well as downstream procedures to isolate high-purity succinic acid crystals, Huc says. BioAmber also worked with the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center, based in South Charleston, W. Va., to improve the downstream processes, resulting in 40% overall reduction in capital costs and 60% overall reduction in energy requirements compared with those of petroleum-derived succinic acid. “We are proud of the fact this technology is the result of a broad collaboration initiated by DOE,” Huc says. “It’s a great example of open innovation: A government agency puts into place an alternative feedstocks program, identifies molecules, and provides funding; national labs develop the organism; and then a private U.S. company like BioAmber works with development partners on two continents to move the R&D project through to commercialization.”
In January 2010, BioAmber began succinic acid production using wheat-derived glucose in a 350,000-L fermenter at a 3,000-metric-ton-per-year capacity plant built by ARD in Pomacle, France. “BioAmber is producing succinic acid at 18 times the scale of other fermentation technologies, which have only reached the 20,000-L level,” Huc says.
The company is planning to begin construction of a 20,000- metric-ton facility in North America later this year, once it makes a final site selection. The plant will initially use corn kernels as a sugar source for E. coli fermentation. But eventually BioAmber plans to switch to an engineered yeast licensed exclusively from Cargill to produce succinic acid from hydrolyzed agricultural wastes, such as corn stover.
“Working with E. coli has allowed us to commercialize faster and work with potential customers to develop new applications,” Huc says. “The organism is easier to manipulate than a yeast. But yeasts are better organisms long-term because they are more robust. Yeasts are easier to use on a large scale, can operate at a lower pH, and offer the possibility of retrofitting existing ethanol capacity.”
The current global market for petroleum-based succinic acid is about 50,000 metric tons per year, Huc says. But if lower cost biobased succinic acid goes into applications where petroleum-derived succinic acid hasn’t been used, demand could soar to several million tons per year, he adds.
For example, biobased succinic acid is cost-effective as a feedstock for commodity chemicals such as tetrahydrofuran and 1,4-butanediol (see Genomatica’s Greener Synthetic Pathways Award). BioAmber is also working with polymer plasticizer producers to show that succinate esters are viable alternatives to phthalates, which have come under scrutiny for their potential toxicity. And succinate salts are less corrosive to metal alloys, steel, and concrete than acetate salts used in airport and roadway deicing operations.
Succinic acid can also replace petroleum-derived adipic acid, HO2C(CH2)4CO2H, which is the most important diacid, used on a multi-million-ton scale to make nylon and polyurethane, Huc says. The substitution can help mitigate the environmental concern over nitrogen oxide emissions stemming from nitric acid used to make adipic acid.
BioAmber’s leading application for succinic acid is to make modified polybutylene succinate (PBS), a biodegradable polyester produced by its subsidiary Sinoven Biopolymers. The polymer, which has comparable properties to polypropylene, can be used in food service, automotive, and electronic applications that require heat-resistant biodegradable polymers.
PBS is expected to be valuable for blending with polylactic acid (PLA), which is the leading biobased polymer sold today, Huc adds. The combination of flexible PBS with the more rigid PLA could yield a versatile polymer that is easy to process. According to a Department of Agriculture study, biobased polymers including PBS and PLA could account for about one-third of the global polymer market by 2025.
“This award is really a testament to DOE and BioAmber’s long-term vision,” Huc says. “It has taken time and financial investment for BioAmber to get where we are today. It’s nice to be recognized for that long haul and what we have accomplished.”
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