Biocatalysis: Using Enzymes
To Produce New Products
Chemist Dave Compton
adjusts the pressure-control gauge on a device while a
biocatalysis reaction occurs inside. He is optimizing
procedures for making an
all-natural soy-based sunscreen. (K8679-1)
The high productivity of U.S.
agriculture in the 20th century was powered by the 19th century's Industrial
Revolution and by the sciences of genetics and organic chemistry. Now, as late
20th century advances in molecular biology and information technology increase
yields and use of renewable materials produced on farms,
ARS scientists are focusing on making it
all happen in ways that minimize risks to our environment.
Just as in the past 50 years, petroleum engineers have improved a process
called catalysisor fluidized catalytic crackingto nearly maximize
the amount of energy obtainable from a barrel of oil, agricultural scientists
may develop biocatalysis to efficiently convert farm commodities into a variety
of useful products.
Biocatalysis is the process of using enzymes in a laboratory or factory to
synthesize compounds. It's a "green"environmentally
friendlyprocess because it may not require petroleum-based solvents. And
products made via biocatalysis can themselves be made from renewable resources.
"This year we started researching biocatalysis as a way to synthesize
novel fats and oils," said Joe Laszlo, a lead scientist in the
Biomaterials Processing Research Unit at the National Center for Agricultural
Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois. So far, NCAUR chemist Dave Compton
and Laszlo have used an enzyme to construct an ultraviolet light-absorbing
sunscreen made from any of several vegetable oils and other natural plant
Now Compton and Laszlo are teaming up with Jerry King, a chemist who leads the
NCAUR's Food Quality and Safety Research Unit. The scientists are moving the
research to a laboratory especially designed for processing larger amounts of
vegetable oils at higher pressures and temperatures. In the larger setup, they
are using supercritical carbon dioxide as a solvent for reacting and extracting
compounds synthesized by the enzymes.
In other research, King and his colleagues developed a two-step process using
supercritical carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methanol, and an enzyme and another
catalyst to convert soybean oil into hydrogen-saturated alcohol mixtures. Such
mixtures are used to make soaps, detergents, and related chemicals.
"With supercritical fluid extraction, we compress and heat a
gasusually carbon dioxideso it becomes more dense and
liquidlike," King explains. In this unique physical and chemical state,
the carbon dioxide can pass through a mixture and dissolve specific fats or
other materials. The gas is then decompressed and harmlessly vented into the
atmosphere, leaving the extracted products behind.By
Ben Hardin, Agricultural
Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of New Uses, Quality, and Marketability of Plant and
Animal Products, an ARS National Program (#306) described on the World Wide Web
David L. Compton,Joseph A. Laszlo, and
Jerry W. King are at the
USDA-ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, 1815 N.
University St., Peoria, IL 61604; phone Compton (309) 681-6321, Laszlo (309)
681-6322, King (309) 681-6203, fax (309) 681-6685.
"Biocatalysis: Using Enzymes To Produce New
Products" was published in the February 2000 issue of Agricultural