Rice University signs deal to commercialize succinic acid

By Bryan Sims
Roquette Frères, Europe's largest starch and starch-derivatives company headquartered in Lestrem, France, signed a licensing agreement with Rice University in Houston that will enable Roquette to commercially produce biobased succinic acid.

Succinic acid is a valuable four-carbon molecule that serves as a viable replacement for its petroleum-derived cousin: maleic anhydride. It's commonly used in the plastics, textiles and pharmaceutical industries.

The technology for efficiently producing biobased succinic acid was developed and patented by Rice University Bioengineering professor Ka-Yiu San, and Biochemistry and Cell Biology professor George Bennett. Their process employs the principles of "white biotechnology," meaning production without the use of petroleum, according to Bennett. Until recently, the only way to produce succinic acid in industrial quantities involved petroleum-based products.

Because maleic anhydride and succinic acid are chemically similar and succinic acid is produced by all living things through the fermentation of sugars, succinic acid could also serve as a platform chemical for the synthesis of a multitude of compounds. "[Succinic acid] is a very useful molecule because it has two ends that are carboxylic acids, so those can be used to cross-link different compounds," Bennett said. "That makes it a moderately high-value chemical."

Under the agreement, Roquette obtained the right to commercialize the technology developed by San and Bennett, who genetically engineered E. coli bacteria that produce high quantities of succinic acid via a fermentation process. "The process is actually carbon-negative," Han said. "It uses about 0.75 molecules of carbon dioxide for every molecule of succinic acid it produces from glucose."

Roquette intends to develop a demonstration plant in France later this year. After successful demonstration of the technology, the company expects to begin large-scale production by 2011.