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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.


Greener Processes Lessen Consumption and Footprint


George Bennett, Ph.D., E.Dell Butcher Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, Rice University
K.-Y. San, Ph.D., E. Dell Butcher Professor of Bioengineering, Rice University
Tao Lin, Graduate Student in Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Rice University

 K.-Y. San and George Bennett 
Dr. K.-Y. San and Dr. George Bennett
 Tao Lin
 Tao Lin

Project Background 

The objective of the project is to develop and promote greener processes for forming useful industrial chemicals from renewable sources.  The processes would lessen petroleum and energy consumption and have a reduced environmental footprint.

The general context for the work is the increasing concern over the environmental impact of industrial processes, especially those relating to carbon emissions and hazardous waste pollution.   In this regard the chemical industry seeks greener production methods for important chemicals.  Microbial conversions play an important and expanding role in chemical production. Favorable characteristics include reduction of petroleum usage and energy coupled with reduced formation of hazardous waste.  Our focus has been on processes that reduce the carbon dioxide footprint.  We are focused on the production of large-scale chemicals with established uses and properties.

In previous work we have developed a new bioprocess for the formation of succinate that consumes carbon dioxide while forming the product at near theoretical yield. We now seek to produce other industrially useful organic acids that can be made through microbial pathways.  Among such compounds is itaconic acid, listed as one of the top 12 chemicals from biomass in the Department of Energy report of 2004. It is used directly in co-polymers with desirable properties in the fiber industry, and serves as a precursor of a large family of 5-carbon chemicals.  Chemical synthesis is costly and inefficient. We will use various feedstocks to produce the itaconic acid. The methodology involves the modification of pathways using the tools of molecular & synthetic biology with host organisms that can already perform the majority of the biosynthetic steps.

Besides laboratory research on the biochemistry and engineering of the organism, undergraduates will work with the BCM Center for Educational Outreach, that promotes “The Science of Microbes” to classroom use through online and printed materials.  Often, the only knowledge of microbes presented to young students is the germ relationship to disease.  In this educational effort we will expand the scope of the current program by adding information on the role of microbes in the environment and in beneficial processes.  The students will work to add modules explaining the broader impacts of microbes in the environment such as those involving industrial microbes (food, antibiotics), biodegradation of hazardous compounds and cellulose degradation, and the contributions of microbes to carbon dioxide and nitrogen fixation.

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