Plants supplying building blocks for the chemical industry

Plants providing building blocks for the chemical industry? Yes, this is possible. Scientists of Plant Research International have proven this with potato and itacon acid. Such a plant-based raw material is much more sustainable than current oil-based raw materials. The art now is in increasing production and in finding other potential raw materials.


The chemical industry is mainly using petroleum or petrochemicals for the production of synthetics, building materials, coatings or solvents. This is not sustainable because the utilisation of fossil fuels is leading to the emission of CO2. And the oil supply is of course limited.

This makes replacement of oil-based raw materials by plant-based material materials a sustainable option. Plants are using solar energy and are suitable for the production of large amounts of one substance. This may amount to hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year, a scale similar to that of the chemical industry. And by nature plants have an enormous ‘chemical machinery’ for producing constituents. It is fairly simple to steer this machinery into a specific direction via molecular breeding.

Potato produces itacon acid

Our researchers have tested this concept with potato. From the Aspergillus terreus fungus they have isolated a gene that produces itacon acid and they have inserted this gene into potato via genetic modification. This was found to be working. The potato indeed produced the itacon acid, up to 2 per cent of its dry weight. A crop needs to contain 10 per cent of a constituent to make it financially interesting. Another building block, they now produce in the plant, is lysine, that is converted back to caprolactam, the building block for Nylon.

This makes modification of storage in the plant the next research step. But we are also considering a different crop such as sugar beet. This cells of this crop have more room for storing a new constituent but insertion of a gene into sugar beet is more complex than insertion into potato.

Cooperation required

For further development will be cooperated with a breeder, a processor that can extract the constituent from the crop, and a chemical company that will be using the raw material to produce plastics. The search for new plant constituents is a follow-up step. The researchers in particular think again about organic acids and amino acids because plants are good at producing these substances and because they are suitable as raw material for the chemical industry. They also look at other crops to produce.