SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

The application of biotechnology to the production of commodity products (fuels, chemicals, and materials) offering benefits in terms of sustainable resource supply and environmental quality is an emergent area of intellectual endeavor and industrial practice with great promise. Such “biocommodity engineering” is distinct from biotechnology motivated by health care at multiple levels, including economic driving forces, the importance of feedstocks and cost-motivated process engineering, and the scale of application. Plant biomass represents both the dominant foreseeable source of feedstocks for biotechnological processes as well as the only foreseeable sustainable source of organic fuels, chemicals, and materials. A variety of forms of biomass, notably many cellulosic feedstocks, are potentially available at a large scale and are cost-competitive with low-cost petroleum whether considered on a mass or energy basis, and in terms of price defined on a purchase or net basis for both current and projected mature technology, and on a transfer basis for mature technology. Thus the central, and we believe surmountable, impediment to more widespread application of biocommodity engineering is the general absence of low-cost processing technology. Technological and research challenges associated with converting plant biomass into commodity products are considered relative to overcoming the recalcitrance of cellulosic biomass (converting cellulosic biomass into reactive intermediates) and product diversification (converting reactive intermediates into useful products). Advances are needed in pretreatment technology to make cellulosic materials accessible to enzymatic hydrolysis, with increased attention to the fundamental chemistry operative in pretreatment processes likely to accelerate progress. Important biotechnological challenges related to the utilization of cellulosic biomass include developing cellulase enzymes and microorganisms to produce them, fermentation of xylose and other nonglucose sugars, and “consolidated bioprocessing” in which cellulase production, cellulose hydrolysis, and fermentation of soluble carbohydrates to desired products occur in a single process step. With respect to product diversification, a distinction is made between replacement of a fossil resource-derived chemical with a biomass-derived chemical of identical composition and substitution of a biomass-derived chemical with equivalent functional characteristics but distinct composition. The substitution strategy involves larger transition issues but is seen as more promising in the long term. Metabolic engineering pursuant to the production of biocommodity products requires host organisms with properties such as the ability to use low-cost substrates, high product yield, competitive fitness, and robustness in industrial environments. In many cases, it is likely to be more successful to engineer a desired pathway into an organism having useful industrial properties rather than trying to engineer such often multi-gene properties into host organisms that do not have them naturally. Identification of host organisms with useful industrial properties and development of genetic systems for these organisms is a research challenge distinctive to biocommodity engineering. Chemical catalysis and separations technologies have important roles to play in downstream processing of biocommodity products and involve a distinctive set of challenges relative to petrochemical processing. At its current nascent state of development, the definition and advancement of the biocommodity field can benefit from integration at multiple levels. These include technical issues associated with integrating unit operations with each other, integrating production of individual products into a multi-product biorefinery, and integrating biorefineries into the broader resource, economic, and environmental systems in which they function. We anticipate that coproduction of multiple products, for example, production of fuels, chemicals, power, and/or feed, is likely to be essential for economic viability. Lifecycle analysis is necessary to verify the sustainability and environmental quality benefits of a particular biocommodity product or process. We see biocommodity engineering as a legitimate focus for graduate study, which is responsive to an established personnel demand in an industry that is expected to grow in the future. Graduate study in biocommodity engineering is supported by a distinctive blend of intellectual elements, including biotechnology, process engineering, and resource and environmental systems.