WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University researchers are
launching a company focusing on an innovative process that could revolutionize
how lignocellulosic biomass is used to make biofuels and other bio-based
products and chemicals.
Spero Energy Inc., which is based in the Purdue Research
Park, will be led by Mahdi Abu-Omar, the R.B. Wetherill Professor of Chemistry
and Chemical Engineering and associate director of Purdue’s Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass
to Biofuels, C3Bio.
“Spero Energy’s transformative technology of making
high-value chemical products from lignin with simultaneous production of
lignin-free cellulose in one step is a significant step toward our nation’s
pursuit of renewable energy sources,” said Abu-Omar, division head of inorganic
chemistry and associate director of C3Bio. “The lignin-derived Spero products
also are expected to provide this new company an entry into the aromatic
specialty chemicals market.”
Current biorefinery processes for producing cellulosic
ethanol make use of the carbohydrates in the biomass. The lignin, accounting for
more than 35 percent of the carbon in biomass, often is used in low-value
applications such as heat generation.
Spero’s technology portfolio, based on research efforts at
C3Bio, centers on novel catalytic processes for converting lignin in wood
biomass and waste to liquid chemical products. These chemicals have applications
in flavoring and fragrance in addition to high-octane fuels and high-value
materials, Abu-Omar said.
The process developed by Spero — its name means “hope” in
Latin — produces lignin-free cellulose that can be easily converted into
fermentable sugars and sugar-derived, high-value chemicals. It focuses on the
delignification of mechanically milled and shredded wood with lignin conversion
to methoxypropylphenols with a bifunctional catalyst under mild thermal
Phenols, which currently are manufactured from petroleum
feedstock through multi-step processes, are high-value fragrance and flavor
Current biofuel production is a multi-step process, with
carbohydrates separated from lignin in a pretreatment process, generally using
acid and high temperatures.
For ethanol production, enzymes break down plant material
carbohydrates into sugars, which are fermented using yeast. The yeast, using the
sugars as food, creates ethanol.
Lignin, however, acts as a physical barrier in plant cell
walls, making it difficult for enzymes to break down the biomass, and a chemical
barrier by poisoning the enzymes. Without expensive pretreatment, the enzymes
get to less than 20 percent of the biomass sugars.
Basudeb Saha, an associate research scientist at Purdue,
will serve as chief technology officer of the new company, and postdoctoral
researcher Trenton Parsell, with doctoral students Ian Klein and Barron
Hewetson, are part of Spero’s technical team. Agricultural and biological
engineering professor Nathan Mosier and chemical engineering professor Fabio
Ribeiro are scientific advisers.
Spero is a spin-off of efforts by Purdue researchers working
on the U.S. Department of Energy-funded C3Bio project at Purdue. Affiliated with Discovery Park's Energy Center and the Bindley Bioscience
Center, C3Bio also is investigating how to produce fuels that
closely resemble gasoline in terms of their molecular makeup and energy
“We’re excited about how our DOE-funded C3Bio team at Purdue
is advancing this high-risk, high-reward research effort,” said biological
sciences professor Maureen McCann, director of C3Bio and the Purdue Energy
“We believe we are having a meaningful, broader impact on
the overall economy and the pursuit of viable renewable energy sources through
patented technologies and processes and startup companies such as Spero
Since its 2009 launch through a $20 million grant from the
DOE, C3Bio and its team of researchers led by McCann have aimed at using thermal
and chemical catalysts to create biofuels that use more of a plant’s
The C3Bio team hopes to engineer catalysts or catalytic
sites into plants and use heat or chemical catalysts to convert the biomass into
fuel directly, without the need for enzymes, yeasts or other microbes. In
addition, five patent applications have been filed in connection with the
research generated through C3Bio.
The five-year project also has had additional impacts. C3Bio
has created more than 20 jobs for students, postdoctoral researchers and
professional staff in Indiana and another eight jobs at partner institutions.
McCann also serves as director of the Purdue Energy Center.
Joining Purdue as partners of C3Bio are the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Tennessee, Northeastern University
and Argonne National Laboratory.