Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Closing the Loop in Biotechnology

Of all the potentially significant biotechnologies out there, bacteria,algae and other microbiological options are the ones that I am the biggest fan of. I haven't written much about it (that is obviously changing here today) as I can't say that I am really knowledgeable in the area, but I really see some large potential for it in certain applications. While most people are focusing on fuel generation, the polymer chemist in me is looking for monomers not only to make my life more interesting, but also because these chemicals would command a higher price than fuels would, thereby increasing the economic performance of the operations. And beside, isn't combustion chemistry boring?

The huge advantages that I see are that the little critters can be grown on non-arable land (leaving crop land for food production) and furthermore, they can be grown year round (in reactors, as opposed to ponds), a particularly important requirement for large portions of the world remote from the equator.

This month's "Nature Biotechnology" has a report that discusses the use of protein as a food source instead of the usual carbohydrate option. There is quite a bit of genetic engineering involved to accomplish this in E. coli, but the overall result is that the nitrogen is removed from the amino acids and given off as ammonia. The remnants of the amino acids are keto acids, which can then be converted to monomers such as adipic acid (used in nylon 6,6) or THF or butanediols or ...(or fuels if you insist).

What really caught my attention however, was the big picture view that the authors had for this technology and its industrialization. The proteins for this operation could come as waste from an adjacent algae or fermentation operation, and the ammonia released earlier could be used as a nitrogen source for those operations. In other words, this breakthrough could be used to set up a symbiotic operation with greater efficiency than either technology could have on its own.

Given that nature is filled with such relationships where one living thing's waste is another living thing's food, a production site such as was proposed here would only be natural.


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