The humble soybean could become an inexpensive new source of a widely used chemical for plastics, textiles, drugs, solvents and as a food additive.
Succinic acid, traditionally drawn from petroleum, is one focus of research by Rice chemists George Bennett and Ka-Yiu San. In 2004, the Department of Energy named succinic acid one of 12 "platform" chemicals that could be produced from sugars by biological means and turned into high-value materials.
Several years ago, Rice patented a process by Bennett and San for the bio-based production of succinic acid that employed genetically modified E. coli bacteria to convert glucose into succinic acid in a way that would be competitive with petroleum-based production.
The new succinate process developed by Bennett, San and Chandresh Thakker and reported recently in Bioresource Technology promises to make even better use of a cheap and plentiful feedstock, primarily the indigestible parts of the soybean.
"We are trying to find a cheaper, renewable raw material to start with so the end product will be more profitable," said Thakker, a research scientist in the Bennett lab at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative and lead author of the study. "The challenge has been to make this biomass process cost-competitive with the petrochemical methods people have been using for many years."
Bennett feels they have done that with soybean-derived feedstock as an inexpensive source of the carbon that microorganisms digest to produce the desired chemical via fermentation. "A lot of people use plant oils for cooking corn or soybean or canola -- instead of lard, as they did in the old days," he said. "The oils are among the main products of these seeds. Another product is protein, which is used as a high-quality food.
"What's left over is indigestible fiber and small carbohydrates," said Bennett, Rice's E. Dell Butcher Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. "It'
|Contact: David Ruth|