Novozymes, the world leader in bioinnovation, has succeeded in developing a fungus that enables production of malic acid from renewable raw materials instead of oil. Malic acid is used as a flavor enhancer in the food industry and can be converted into other chemical derivatives used for a variety of plastic, polymer and resin products. Novozymes is now out-licensing the technology to partners who are interested in producing and commercializing malic acid and derivatives made from renewable raw materials instead of oil.

“This is our first biochemical building block and a major milestone towards building a biochemical industry together with partners,” says Novozymes’ Executive Vice President Thomas Videbæk. “Oil-based products are all around us, and biochemicals produced from renewable raw materials meet a global need for sustainable alternatives. This need is growing due to concerns about crude oil scarcity and price fluctuations.”

Jelly and golf balls
Malic acid occurs naturally in fruits and many vegetables. In the food and beverage industries, it is added to enhance the sour flavor in products such as jellies, jams, juices and soft drinks.
Malic acid also has significant potential as a building block in the chemical industry. Along with succinic acid and fumaric acid it belongs to the group of C4 dicarboxylic acids. C4 acids can be converted into 1.4-butanediol (BDO), a veritable Swiss Army knife of the chemical industry that can be further converted into numerous chemicals, including plastics, polymers and resins for use in everything from golf balls and skateboard wheels to printing inks and cleaning agents.

The annual global market for malic acid is around 60,000 tons and has a value of $130 million with a growth rate of 4% per year. The market for BDO and derivatives is around 1.4 million tons at a value of $2.8 billion and with an annual growth rate of 3%.

Paving the way for biochemicals
Novozymes started its research in biochemicals in 2006 and has since then initiated a number of technically very challenging projects to enable sustainable and cost-competitive production of biochemicals.  In the production of biochemicals, renewable raw materials such as starch from corn or cellulosic biomass from agricultural waste are converted into sugars, just like in the production of biofuels. These sugars are then transformed into chemical building blocks by enzymes or microorganisms that have been designed specifically for this purpose.

In the biochemicals value chain, Novozymes is primarily developing the enzymes or microorganisms that enable production of biochemicals, while partnering with chemical companies or agricultural processors. To date, Novozymes has announced partnerships with Cargill (acrylic acid), Braskem (polypropylene), Dacheng (glycols) and Meihua (amino acids).

The contribution of biotechnology is still modest in the chemical industry, but it is gaining momentum. Analysts and researchers estimate that biochemicals could contribute as much as 17% of the global chemical market by 2025.