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Posted: Apr 10, 2017
Harnessing nature's chemistry expertise for greener industrial production (w/video)
(Nanowerk News) Modern society relies greatly on industrial chemistry products to maintain its quality of life, as well as its economic activities. However, the conventional procedure for transforming raw materials into everything from pharmaceuticals to plastics is typically energy intensive and involves high-temperatures, making it frequently inefficient. Additionally, the process uses hazardous substances (such as corrosive chemicals and toxic metals) and generates harmful waste.
Yet nature routinely performs chemical transformations, efficiently and sustainably. Enzymes, as natural catalysts, enable photosynthetic organisms (such as plants) to transform captured CO2 into sugars, which are then used as building blocks and energisers for various products and processes. The starting point for the EU funded CARBAZYMES project was to explore how best to harness nature’s ability for high speed, precise, efficient production under mild reaction conditions towards achieving a ‘Green Chemistry’.
Bridging the ‘Valley of Death’ from laboratory to large-scale industrial production
Setting out to innovate for large scale biocatalytic carbon-carbon bond formation, crucial to industrial organic synthesis, CARBAZYMES first had to overcome prior hurdles. These were principally finding a library of robust enzymes to cater for a range of reactions, combined with long development timelines.
The team has made significant progress by designing advanced tools to identify and develop a broad toolbox of C-C bond forming enzymes with improved properties more amenable to sustainable industrial processes. CARBAZYMES is developing the biocatalytic synthesis of several compounds, across a range of four chiral fine chemicals and three bulk chemicals, identified as being a good fit for market needs. The project has also created data mining bioinformatics tools, tests for high-throughput reaction analysis, protein structure modelling, as well as fast protocols for mutagenesis and stabilization of enzymes. Microreactor technology has also been established for bioprocess characterization and advanced reaction engineering.
To date the project has already put together a library of promising enzymes and tested their reactions for catalytic suitability. This has included what the project refers to as ‘mutant enzymes’ with improved properties by in-vitro-evolution and high-throughput screening. In fact, the project coordinator Prof. Wolf-Dieter Fessner recently revealed in an interview a colleague had already discovered an enzyme and developed a catalyst - coming close to industrial requirements.
As he recalled, ‘Even I, with all my experience, thought this would be really challenging because of the high reactivity of the ingredients. We have already filed a patent – which is quite some achievement, I believe, given the short time for which the project has been running. That is, for me, truly amazing!’
The biotechnology bounty
There are multiple benefits to be accrued from the large-scale C-C bonding innovations for natural enzyme-catalysts being developed by CARBAZYMES. At the economic level it will contribute towards increased production efficiencies with the ability to develop large-scale facilities for industrial partners. It will also generate new intellectual property, as well as help spark job growth. All making the European chemical industry more competitive, in a market worth billions of Euros.
The ensuing biocatalysts will also provide opportunities for further synthesis of many valuable products, with strong potential to reduce emissions, energy consumption and toxic waste. As Prof. Fessner puts it, ‘You have to remember that bulk chemicals are produced in the billions of tonnes and that if these processes can be modified to be more environmentally friendly it will definitely have an impact on our planet. And it’s just the beginning.’ The project even envisages being able to recycle organic waste leftovers into components for the chemical industry.