'Use carbon dioxide to make biochemicals and clean up the air'

Mark A Eiteman, Professor of Biochemical Engineering and Microbiology at the University of Georgia in the USA, says he has  enjoyed working with the bright and enthusiastic undergraduate and post-graduate students in India.  “They have remarkable talent in the area of biotechnology, and are very tuned in to the need for sustainability,” says Eiteman who is now attached to Anna University in Chennai as a Fulbright Nehru Research Excellence Fellow to conduct collaborative research with the university.

His research interests are in fermentation and biotechnology with emphasis using micro-organisms to produce a wide range of biochemicals, from commodity chemicals to pharmaceuticals.   He has authored over 80 peer reviewed articles and has been awarded five US and numerous foreign patents.  He has been named the 2014 Inventor of the Year at the University of Georgia.  Eiteman was also instrumental in the founding of the professional organisation —Institute of Biological Engineering —which is devoted to the engineering of biological systems.  He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Biological Engineering.

Biofuel is a liquid chemical made from renewable resources, that can, at least partly, replace petroleum based fuel which helps in reducing pollution, is sustainable and promotes self sufficiency in the Indian context. Eiteman spoke to R Vasudevan,  a freelance journalist, on research in biochemicals and biofuel and relevance to current needs of our society. Excerpts:

Can you throw light on the work you have done so far in the area of bio fuel at UGA ?
The current thinking is biofuel is a liquid chemical made from renewable resources that can replace, at least partly, the petroleum-derived fuels.  Fuels are just one area where we use petroleum products.  Many other chemicals we use for every day purpose come from petroleum products like plastic water bottles to synthetic fibres in our clothes to medicines we need to maintain health.  My research involves finding greener ways of making such products in a sustainable way.  Typically, this means taking  sugars from plants and then using micro-organisms to convert those sugars into some of the same chemicals that can be produced from petroleum.   While here, I have learned much about new possible products and become particularly interested in polymers that have medical applications such as hyaluronic acid, and I am working with the faculty here to come up with better ways of making these compounds.

What challenges are you facing in the process of production of biochemicals in the laboratory and what is your take on its commercial production ?

The challenges faced by university researchers for the production of new biochemicals typically involve resources or technical challenges.  We must first determine whether the production of a biochemical is even feasible for any micro-organism.  Then, we must figure out what is the best way for that production to occur, something which typically involves selecting the best micro-organism or modifying microbes.  We also must study the engineering of the process; that is, how do we operate the bioreactor, such as what nutrients, do we supply them and how we supply them.  Finally, the process must be improved to the point where enough of the biochemical product is generated, and fast enough, so that the whole process is economically feasible.  For a university researcher, the challenge is finding enough resources to carry out all this development research.

Resources include having enthusiastic and knowledgeable students and other employees, and having the financial means to support the work through grants or other partnerships.You were instrumental in founding  the "Institute of Biological Engineering" in 1995. What are its activities?

 In the early 1990s, many engineers who were incorporating biology into their engineering and design work came together to organise and create this professional society and I am proud to continue to be part of that ongoing effort.   Today, IBE holds annual meetings which are largely devoted to discussions about research and about biological engineering curricula at universities in the US.  It also holds regional meetings within the US too to bring together engineers and applied scientists at a more local level.  The IBE sponsors a peer-reviewed journal called the Journal of Biological Engineering. This journal is a forum for engineers who are inspired by biology in their designs to describe their work and to advance the discipline of biological engineering.

You have five US patents and numerous other foreign patents in the field of biochemical research. Will any of them have relevance in the Indian context?

First, our technologies establish better ways of making biochemicals that are used in everyday products everywhere, including in food, health care and materials (like plastics).
These biochemicals, even if they originate elsewhere, impact everyone.  Some biochemicals, for example, might be supplied at a lower cost to an Indian company to make a specialty plastic used in computers, or a part used in a car.  Thus, people everywhere are able to purchase such goods at a lower cost because of these technologies.  One of the specific technologies my lab has developed involves using carbon dioxide to make biochemicals.  Thus, not only can materials be made in a more sustainable way, but also they can be made while helping reduce the carbon dioxide in our environment. 

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