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NWO researcher makes a revolutionary chemical compound

22 July 2010 NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research)

Soft drink bottles and fleece blankets are set to become more environmentally friendly. NWO researcher Frank Koopman has made a bio-based compound that can act as a substitute for one of the most important raw materials for plastic products. The American Department of Energy has awarded the new material a place in the top 12 of the most promising biological materials for the chemical industry.

Frank Koopman is undertaking research into the use of bio-based raw materials for the production of chemicals and fuels. Biomass - such as wood and plant waste - is sometimes hard to use as a raw material due to the presence of furan aldehydes ((5-hydroxymethylfurfural, abbreviated as HMF, and furfural). These materials are created when biomass is converted into free sugars, as the basis for bio-fuel. Koopman discovered that the bacteria Cupriavidus basilensis consumes these contaminating by-products. Also, these bacteria produce the material FCDA, which can replace one of the raw materials for polyethylene -terephthalate (PET, known from the soft drink bottles and fleeces). This industry is worth billions every year.

Good digestion

Koopman and his colleagues from Delft University of Technology and BIRD Engineering discovered that the chemical compound FDCA (furan dicarboxylic acid) was released when the Cupriavidus basilensis bacteria broke down the HMF. The researchers mapped out the entire digestive process of the bacteria, partly so as to be able to transfer this breakdown cycle to other organisms. The enzyme responsible for the formation of FDCA can fully convert HMF into FDCA, unlike most of the chemical processes. Working in conjunction with Nick Wierckx, Han de Winde and Harald Ruijssenaars, Frank Koopman placed this enzyme in the Pseudomonas putida bacteria, which allows high concentrations of FDCA to be produced at the lab scale. This process is currently undergoing further development at BIRD Engineering.

The decomposition of HMF and furfural make this conversion of biomass into fuel much less expensive. This is because the need for pricey and environmentally unfriendly methods of removing these by-products is done away with. Using wood or plant waste for the production of chemicals and biofuels like bio-ethanol has the benefit that these raw materials are not in competition with food production. Thanks to Koopman's research, wood and plant waste are becoming more attractive alternatives for the production of bio-fuels.

B-BASIC

The research of Koopman, Wierckx, Ruijssenaars and De Winde is part of the B-BASIC consortium. Within B-BASIC (Bio-based Sustainable Industrial Chemistry) Dutch universities, research institutes and industry are working together. The programme focuses on the development of new concepts for the sustainable production of energy and chemicals. In this project the team collaborated with the bioconversion workgroup of TNO. B-BASIC is part of ACTS (Advanced Chemical Technologies for Sustainability), the NWO platform for public-private research in the area of sustainable chemical technology.

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