Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


ORNL part of $7 million deal to turn corn into chemicals

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Aug. 16, 1996 — Department of Energy (DOE) researchers have developed a new microbe as part of a process that converts corn into a cost-efficient source of the chemicals used to make polymers, clothing fibers, paints, inks, food additives, automobile bumpers and an array of other industrial and consumer products.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and three other DOE labs have signed a $7 million agreement with Applied CarboChemicals, a Pennsylvania specialty chemicals company, to manufacture chemical feedstocks from renewable farm crops at a significantly lower cost than conventional petroleum-based methods while eliminating gypsum, an undesirable by-product that must be hauled to landfills.

Using a novel microorganism in fermentation, the new process also promises to reduce reliance on imported oil and to expand markets for domestic agriculture.

"What's unique about this project is the coordination of efforts among the researchers at the four facilities and Applied CarboChemicals," said ORNL's Brian Davison, group leader of the Chemical Technology Division's Biochemical Engineering Group. "We communicated on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis despite different time zones and work schedules."

The new process, developed by ORNL, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), creates succinic acid by fermenting glucose sugar from corn, separating and purifying the acid and using it as an intermediate to produce 1,4-butanediol, tetrahydrofuran, N-methyl pyrrolidone and other chemical feedstocks used to make a wide assortment of products. Existing domestic markets for such chemicals total almost 1 billion pounds - or more than $1.3 billion - a year, Davison said.

The process has been licensed to Applied CarboChemicals, whose president, Eric O'Connor-Donsky, worked closely with the DOE labs. "We are committed," he said, "to the transfer of the technology to commercial operations, and this project could serve as a model for government research-industry cooperation to achieve immediately viable results."

Applied CarboChemicals expects to employ 20 to 30 people within a year at its own research and development facility. The number of employees will grow significantly over the next decade as the company builds manufacturing operations and expands into other global markets.

Each DOE laboratory made significant contributions to the research effort. ORNL's role involved researchers Nhuan Nghiem and Davison, who developed the fermentation process. This process utilizes a novel microorganism, developed by ANL, that converts corn-derived glucose to succinic acid at very high yields. ANL has filed a patent for this new industrial microbe.

ANL's primary role involved biocatalyst development by metabolic engineering and improved separations using electrodialysis. NREL performed economic analysis and PNNL researchers focused on catalysis of succinic acid to commodity chemicals, the final step in the conversion process. In addition to its work in the areas of fermentation and bioprocess development, ORNL was the technical project leader.

This research is part of DOE's Alternative Feedstocks program, which is intended to forge new links between the agricultural community and the chemicals industry through support of research and development that uses crops to produce chemical feedstocks.

Potential economic benefits of this and other Alternative Feedstock program projects include expanded markets for corn and other renewable feedstocks, greater job security and perhaps job growth within agriculture and related industries. Energy savings could also be significant, as one combined biological and chemical plant producing chemical components could save energy equivalent to that required to heat 80,000 single-family homes for a year and conserve valuable petroleum resources.

The research is funded by DOE's Office of Industrial Technology, Alternative Feedstocks Program. Funding is also provided through the cooperative research and development agreement with Applied CarboChemicals.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.