Terpene-based Manufacturing for Sustainable Chemical feedstocks

Project: Research council

Project Details


Our aim is to develop a sustainable, integrated platform for manufacture of industrial chemicals based on biological terpenoid feedstocks to complement carbohydrate, oil and lignin-based feedstocks that will be available to sustainable chemistry-using industries of the future. Our focus will include production of aromatics and amines which are particularly challenging targets from other biofeedstocks. Transition from fossil-based feedstocks to renewable alternatives is a key challenge for the 21st Century. Major efforts are underway to address this with work currently focused on carbohydrates, fats and oils, and lignins all of which give rise to fundamental technological barriers due to the incompatibility of complex and oxygen-rich materials with conversion technologies developed for simple hydrocarbon-based petrochemical feedstocks. This often requires biological feedstocks to undergo costly and inefficient transformations and separations prior to deployment in existing supply chains. In contrast, terpenes are an abundant class of natural products based on the C5 isoprene unit. As hydrocarbons they are easily separated from aqueous environments and can be readily upgraded using existing petrochemical technologies. While terpenes have been used in limited quantities since antiquity (notably as flavours and fragrances) they have yet to be exploited systematically for the production of platform chemicals even though they represent a potentially vast resource: global biogenic production of terpenes is 10^9 t/yr. Significant volumes of useful terpenes are already available on global markets at low cost (production of turpentine oils and limonene are 330,000 and 30,000 t/yr, respectively, the former costing 0.09-0.19 Euros per L). While this is sufficient in itself to justify a viable value-added chemical platform (metrics comparable to those for lignin: 1.1m t/yr at £250-2,000 per t) such figures will be dwarfed in the near future through the large-scale (multimillon t/yr) microbial production of terpenes such as farnesene for biofuels via the engineering of isoprene metabolic pathways. This industrial biotechnology (IB) approach, developed by Amyris and others, promises large-scale and geographically flexible supplies of terpenes via fermentation of plant sugars and cellulosic waste. Thus, the exploration of new generic technologies for the chemical exploitation of terpenes is timely, not only in terms of sustainable utilization of current global resources, but also to take advantage of major developments in IB. However, key challenges to be addressed in the context of terpene-based manufacturing include: (i) development and optimization of sustainable chemical transformations; (ii) scale-up of intensive conversion processes; (iii) development of new terpene sources; and (iv) systems-level understanding of technical, environmental and economic factors associated with new terpene-based manufacturing technologies. This project will address these challenges directly in four interconnected workpackages. Outputs from the project will provide a competitive advantage for one of the UK's most successful industries. Chemistry-reliant industries contributed an equivalent of 21% GDP to the UK economy in 2007, they support 6m jobs (RSC 2010), and turnover is growing at 5% pa (UKTI, 2009). The utilization of IB is vital to sustaining competitive advantage, with the value of the UK IB market in 2025 estimated at £4b to £12b (BERR 2009). Specific to this project, the development of new integrated technologies for terpene-based manufacturing, ultimately via microbial fermentation of waste cellulose, will provide competitive advantage for UK industries through new sustainable manufacturing processes, reduced feedstock costs, security of supply and reduced environmental impact. The UK will benefit further from export of new technologies and services and from development of new skills vital to future low carbon manufacturing.
Effective start/end date1/02/1331/07/18


  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy


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