Partnership Receives Funding To Commercialize NREL’s 2,3-Butanediol Fermentation Process

Dec. 6, 2022 | By Anna Nixon | Contact media relations

A scientist in a lab uses a pipette to add liquid to a test tube.

NREL molecular biology researcher Min Zhang has devoted much of her career to developing Zymomonas mobilis, the bacterium used in NREL’s fermentation process to create 2,3-butanediol. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and BioPrincipia, a Georgia-based bioprocess technology company, are partnering to scale NREL’s fermentation process for producing 2,3-butanediol (2,3-BDO). The collaboration will result in a commercial-ready process for creating 2,3-BDO, which can be upgraded to new low-carbon and sustainable biopolymers, chemicals, and fuels.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) coordinated with DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) to provide nearly $850,000 in funding for this project through the Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF). The TCF program facilitates stronger partnerships among DOE facilities, private sector companies, and other entities with the goal of getting more clean energy technologies to the marketplace.

“We’re very excited for this award to allow us to commercialize the fermentation process,” NREL molecular biology researcher Min Zhang said. “Certainly, this will help BETO’s ultimate goal of making sustainable aviation fuel.”

A Significant Milestone for NREL Researchers and Biological Science Alike

Zhang is no stranger to the bacterium used in the fermentation process, having spent over 25 years developing the strain at NREL. Zhang is joined by Nancy Dowe, senior research scientist in NREL's Biosciences Center, on this project. The duo have been working on the bacterium and fermentation process for more than six years and are eager to enter the next chapter of their research.

“It’s a capstone to both of our careers,” Dowe said. “It’s nice to see that the fruits of our labor will hopefully end up out in the real world helping to fight climate change.”

One Biological Process’s Waste Stream Is Another Bacterium’s Feedstock

The partnership will leverage NREL’s U.S. patent, “Engineered Zymomonas for the Production of 2,3-Butanediol,” and BioPrincipia’s fermentation facility to scale NREL’s fermentation process. But the benefits of this collaboration do not stop there—the fermentation process uses a sugar feedstock found in BioPrincipia’s waste stream, greatly reducing the environmental and economic barriers to creating 2,3-BDO.

“BioPrincipia has been looking for a home for their waste stream, and it turns out that our particular microorganism can use it to make 2,3-BDO,” Dowe explained. “That’s been a major part of the project, to be able to use that waste stream to make this new chemical.”

Paving a Way for Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Dowe describes this work as essential to creating a market for BDO, which will allow for a future transition to producing sustainable aviation fuel derived from 2,3-BDO.

“A challenge for us at NREL has been to create a new market for this chemical, to break into the commercial world,” Dowe said. “This funding has enabled us to get an industrial partner and have a plan to create a market for this particular chemical. We’re really grateful to BETO for having this sort of funding available to the labs.

“Once we’re ready to make sustainable aviation fuel,” Dowe added, “we’ll have a commercial process ready to provide 2,3-BDO, the chemical feedstock.”

Learn more about NREL's bioenergy research.