California researchers develop biomass-based methyl halides

05 June 2009 19:14  [Source: ICIS news]

NEW YORK (ICIS news)--Large amounts of methyl halides can now be produced from biomass using genetically engineered bacterium and yeast, a university researcher said on Friday.

As end products, petroleum-based methyl halides are used in such applications as solvents, silicone polymers, propellants and soil fumigants.

However, naturally produced methyl halides from organisms such as algae and fungi are very low in yields and are not practical for industrial production, said Christopher Voigt, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry.

Under the process developed by the department, the bacterium consumes plant biomass and produces acetate. The yeast then consumes the acetate and produces methyl halides.

“Our bioprocess could be used to produce methyl halides from non-food, renewable sources for use in industry or agriculture or could be connected to chemical catalysis to produce a wide range of commodity chemicals or fuels,” Voigt said.

The biomass-based methyl halides can run through existing chemical catalysts such as zeolites, making products such as gasoline, olefins, aromatics, alcohols and ethers, he added.

The researchers are currently using sugarcane bagasse. The challenge now is to improve the yield of methyl halides produced using genetic engineering, Voigt said.

If their system could be made as efficient as the currently commercialised sugar-to-ethanol processes, Voigt said they could produce gasoline more cheaply than from oil.

Several companies and funding agencies have already expressed interest in the project, he said.

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