Technology That Turns Corn Sugars into Valuable Chemicals

When Argonne biochemical engineer Seth Snyder drives past a corn field on the outskirts of Chicago, he sees the potential to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil while benefiting rural economies. Snyder and his colleagues in Argonne's Energy Systems (ES) Division are partners with agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), Decatur, Ill., in a cooperative research and development agreement to develop a technology that turns corn sugars into valuable chemicals.

Most chemical building blocks used to make plastics, medicines and other consumer products originate from petroleum refineries, which process crude oil. As oil supplies tighten, a growing movement is pushing to develop biorefineries that turn raw biomass from crops, grasses and trees into electricity, transportation fuels and refined chemicals. This movement is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Program in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is funding Argonne's research along with ADM.

To succeed economically, biorefineries must produce chemicals as cheaply as or cheaper than their petroleum counterparts. A recent report from the DOE Biomass Program listed 12 chemicals produced by biological or chemical conversion of sugars that could be made profitably in biorefineries. The plan is to produce these chemicals along with fuel ethanol.

Most of these chemicals are organic acids and polyols, which are building blocks for a host of secondary chemicals used to make consumer products. For example, 3-hydroxypropionic acid is used to make acrylate derivatives for contact lenses and super-absorbent polymer used in diapers. Also, aspartic acid is an intermediate in pharmaceutical and sweetener manufacturing.

Snyder and his colleagues at Argonne are working with ADM to optimize the production of an organic acid called gluconic acid from sugar using Argonne's patented separative bioreactor technology. Eventually, the technology could be applied to a variety of organic acids and polyols.

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