Last week, a research team from the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory identified an enzyme that could transform poplar trees into a source for industrial chemical building block p-hydroxybenzoic acid. The discovery joins an emerging trend of researchers seeking to replace existing petrochemicals with organic substitutes – rising to meet growing investor and public demand for sustainable supply chains.
Plant biomass has long been eyed as a potentially invaluable resource for creating renewable bio-based materials – including biofuel and high-value chemicals. Scientists have spent years investigating how to break the material down in a sustainable (yet still cost-effective) manner, but it’s only recently that they are beginning to reap the rewards of their work. As the biomanufacturing industry is set to keep expanding, so these innovative solutions will be needed to make hopes for a circular economy a reality.
The Power of Lignin
Brookhaven’s recent research has found a novel way of creating p-hydroxybenzoic acid – a chemical used in everything from resins to dyes and parabens. While typically made from petrochemicals, the latest study shows it can be derived from lignin found in poplar biomass.
A complex, plant-derived polymer, lignin is the substance that gives plants their structural integrity and strength. A strong and natural binding material, it is the second biggest renewable source of carbon after cellulose and as such holds significant potential as a material of the bioeconomy, with the recent ‘Global Lignin Industry’ report finding the lignin market is set to reach $1.1bn in value by 2027.
While it has historically proven tough to break down, emerging enzyme technologies are battling to meet the challenge – increasing commercial viability and value of the material. One such project is that of Brookhaven.
“We’ve identified a key enzyme responsible for the synthesis and accumulation of p-hydroxybenzoate in lignin, one of three major polymers that make up the structural support that surrounds plant cells,” said Chang-Jun Liu, a plant biochemist at Brookhaven and lead author on the paper. “This discovery may enable us to engineer plants to accumulate more of this chemical building block in their cell walls, thereby potentially adding value to the biomass.”
Successfully manipulating the enzyme opens the door to a host of applications, including biofuel production, timber durability and, the team says, ‘long-term carbon sequestration’.
“P-hydroxybenzoic acid is a versatile chemical feedstock. It can serve as a building block for making liquid crystals, a plasticiser of nylon resin, a sensitiser for thermal paper, and a raw material for making paraben, dyes, and pigments,” Liu adds.
Lignin is already being harnessed elsewhere – most notably by Finnish firm Stora Enso for production of its carbon-based batteries. The company is replacing the graphitic carbon in lithium-ion batteries with hard carbon from lignin, with its pilot plant launching operations in July this year. According to the manufacturer, the material can be applied across a host of industries such as automotive, construction and plastics – with the rising demand for sustainability in each one predicted to drive growth of the lignin industry.
Bringing Sustainable Solutions
The push to bring plant biomass into commercial use is echoed in projects across the chemical manufacturing industry – and the past week alone has seen significant progression in the sector.
Brazilian researchers at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) have discovered a novel enzyme found in an Amazon fungus is also capable of breaking down biomass. The discovery is expected to accelerate use of sugarcane waste to produce biofuels – with production of the enzyme at low-cost and mass-scale meeting the challenge previously encountered in producing second-generation ethanol.
In Australia, a team from Monash University in Melbourne are looking at repurposing polluting by-products from manufacturing processes, such as methane and carbon dioxide. Targeting these harmful emissions, the researchers are looking to capture the by-products and repurpose them into novel applications, such as vaccinations, protein supplements, detergents and plastics.
It is not just in the technology sphere that progress is being seen, but also in the framework around researching and developing these innovative solutions.
Last week, Californian biotechnology firm Bota Bio announced it had raised $100m in its Series B financing round for expanding its biomanufacturing platform. The platform – dubbed the ‘Bota Freeway’ – was established to aid the development and evolution of enzymes, in what the company says will help to enable ‘clean and efficient bio-manufacturing’.
“Most traditional manufacturing comes with a high environmental cost. We are building Bota Bio to innovate solutions that help manufacturers in all industries leverage the power of biology to accelerate the design and scale-up of high-performance products using sustainable processes,” said Cheryl Cui, Bota Bio co-founder in a press release.
“Bota Bio is rapidly delivering bio-based and biologically produced products at scale to replace fossil-fuel-based, energy-intensive products and processes with biologically produced sustainable alternatives,” added Neil Shen, founding and managing partner, Sequoia Capital China.
This new burst in demand for sustainability means stories such as these are only expected to continue as innovators turn to natural solutions for our processing needs. And indeed, it is a potentially very lucrative market. A 2020 World Economic Forum report found that by the end of 2030, biologically engineered solutions could generate $10 trillion in value. With the right structures in place, transitioning the chemical manufacturing industry to a cleaner future could be something fast-approaching on our horizon, and with pressure from the public and investors alike, manufacturers are necessarily extending their gaze to greener, more sustainable solutions.