Conversion of Biomass Sugars via Fermentation

Brian Pfleger, James Dumesic, Jeremy Luterbacher, Jacqueline Rand

Microorganisms like yeast and Escherichia coli are cultured in labs for many purposes, notably the production of useful chemicals (such as ethanol) via fermentation. The growth media used in these processes are relatively expensive. Cheaper media derived from renewable resources would be a boon to researchers and industries that rely on microorganisms in their work. UW–Madison researchers previously developed a mild and efficient method for breaking down biomass into its constituent C5 and C6 sugars (e.g., xylose and glucose). The next step is to use these sugars to grow useful microorganisms.

The Invention

The researchers have now developed just such an integrated conversion process: using biomass-derived sugars to culture microorganisms that in turn convert biomass into fuels, commodity chemicals and fatty acids. In the process, biomass is reacted with a lactone like GVL (gamma-valerolactone), water and an acid catalyst. The reaction yields a mixture containing C5 and C6 sugar oligomers and monomers. The lactone is separated out, leaving an aqueous carbohydrate layer that can act as a fermentable substrate for (genetically engineered or wild-type) microorganisms like yeast, E. coli and Lactobacillus casei.

Key Benefits
  • Links biomass, microorganisms and end products
  • No harsh conditions or enzymes 
  • GVL is produced from renewable biomass. 
  • Process is fast, sustainable and economical.
  • Culturing useful microorganisms
  • Converting biomass to commodity chemicals
Stage of Development

The process has successfully produced ethanol and fatty acids from lignocellulosic biomass. Also, lauric acid was produced from E. coli and ethanol from Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The development of this technology was supported by the WARF Accelerator Program. The Accelerator Program selects WARF’s most commercially promising technologies and provides expert assistance and funding to enable achievement of commercially significant milestones. WARF believes that these technologies are especially attractive opportunities for licensing.

Technology Contact

For current licensing status, please contact Mark Staudt at or (608) 265-3084.

Efficient biomass conversion