Renewable Production of Commodity Chemicals

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Los Angeles,
Project Term:
03/20/2015 - 09/30/2020

Critical Need:

Commodity chemicals and fuels are bulk products made on a very large scale to support global markets. Many are derived from petroleum, which exposes the commodity chemical market to price volatility and risk from the boom and bust cycles of oil markets. Petroleum refining is also often limited to the production of traditional hydrocarbons. Microbiological conversion processes (i.e. bioprocessing) with living microorganisms is one method utilized to produce a diverse spectrum of chemicals from a broad range of feedstocks, including renewable feedstocks such as biomass and biogas. Bioprocessing offers the potential to produce tailor-made chemicals that traditional petrochemical processing cannot. However, microbial bioprocesses are often still inefficient – meaning that a significant portion of the carbon and energy inputs are used for maintenance and growth of the microorganism, versus production of the desired chemical. This is a key concern in the development of commodity chemicals, considering that feedstock costs are the predominate determinant of final production cost. In addition, a wide range of chemicals produced may inhibit the very microorganisms deployed in their production. Developing alternative bioprocessing technologies that harness the capabilities of living organisms in a robust and highly carbon and energy efficient manner would provide the U.S. chemical industry with a broader portfolio of feedstock and processing options.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) seeks to develop a platform technology, Catalytic Units for Synthetic Biochemistry (CUSB) that will use enzymes in solution (i.e. in vitro) to convert carbohydrates into a wide variety of useful carbon compounds in extremely high yield. The use of enzymes in solution has advantages over whole-cell microorganisms. Enzymes can be concentrated much further than whole-cells which improves volumetric productivity. Additionally enzymes may be less sensitive to the production of compounds of interest that are typically toxic to whole-cells even at low concentrations. Yet most importantly, the use of specific enzymes provides a high degree of precision to direct carbon and energy efficiently from the feedstock to the final product. The team envisions catalytic breakdown modules that will reduce the carbohydrates to simpler compounds. Breakdown energy is released during this chemical process and can be stored in other high-energy chemicals. Additional catalytic modules will be added to utilize the carbon and energy from the breakdown module to build useful chemicals that can replace petroleum products. This process can potentially generate new markets by producing complex chemicals more economically and with higher energy efficiency than current methods. The team predicts that their technology can reduce the non-renewable energy input required for chemical production by more than 2.5 fold. The system can also provide large-scale production of chemicals that are too costly or too environmentally damaging to produce by current methods. During a prior ARPA-E IDEAS award, the team developed this platform technology. Now, as an addition to the ARPA-E REMOTE program, the UCLA team will further its research and demonstrate CUSB by building a prototype system that can produce isobutanol and terpene, at a much higher yield and productivity than has been previously achieved. The successful development of CUSB will represent a paradigm shift in the way high-volume commodity chemicals can be produced from renewable resources.

Potential Impact:

If successful, UCLA’s program will enable high-yield production of commodity chemicals from biomass carbohydrates.


An improved bioconversion process could create a new pathway to commodity chemical production, reducing the need for petroleum imports for chemical products.


This technology would reduce the non-renewable energy input for commodity chemical production by 2.5 fold while providing more environmentally sustainable production pathways.


More efficient biobased production of commodity chemicals has the potential to generate new markets for domestic feedstocks and further expand the growing bioprocessing industry.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact:
Prof. James Bowie
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