UMaine Collaborating With New Hampshire Entities on Biomass Initiative

Prof Pendse talking about pre-extraction technologies
Prof. Pendse talking about pre-extraction technologies

The University of Maine is part of a recently announced collaboration with New Hampshire-based Itaconix LLC, which has received a $1.8 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative.The award, announced at UNH, will fund efforts by Itaconix, in partnership with Microbia, Inc. and UMaine, to produce Itaconix’s green polymers from itaconic acid fermented with sugars extracted from hardwood biomass. This opens the door to a significant new opportunity for UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute technology.Itaconix develops, produces and markets a new generation of super absorbents and dispersants made from renewable resources.

These products are based on green chemistry developed initially at UNH, and will replace petroleum-based chemicals used in diapers and detergents. The company produces its polymers from itaconic acid that is currently fermented with corn glucose as the feedstock.The goal of the Joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative is to develop the necessary technologies and capabilities to produce green fuels and chemicals from biomass instead of diverting corn away from food use.

The University of Maine has technologies to extract sugars from wood for fermentation. Microbia has the metabolic engineering capabilities to improve the production of itaconic acid during fermentation from this feedstock. Itaconix uses its proprietary manufacturing processes to polymerize itaconic acid into super absorbents and dispersants.“We are introducing Itaconix™ Super Absorbent and Itaconix™ Dispersant, which are friendly to the environment and reduce the use of petroleum in major consumer products,” says John R. Shaw, principal of Itaconix. “The research possible through this biomass initiative offers another major step toward sustainability and away from petroleum dependence by allowing us to use biomass wood and not divert corn away from food uses.”

“Itaconix’s products offer an exciting new potential use of our technologies for extracting sugars from wood,” says Hemant Pendse, chair of UMaine’s Chemical and Biological Engineering Department and managing director of the university’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute. “This opportunity to utilize biomass wood for polymers in leading consumer products is an important new strategic direction for our efforts at the University of Maine.”

“Our goal is to pioneer the use of sugars extracted from sustainable feedstocks such as ligno-cellulosic and waste biomass to replace both food-based sugars and petroleum in the production of industrial chemicals,” says Marcus Lovell Smith, chief executive officer of Microbia, Inc. “We are excited to contribute our expertise to working with Itaconix and the University of Maine to make this possible for detergent and diaper applications.”