Press release, 9th March 2015

Bioelectrochemical processes have the potential to one day replace petrochemistry

Lysine production as an example shows potential savings

Leipzig/Brisbane. Researchers at Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, and the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, have found that the electrification of the white biotechnology is not merely a green dream, but an alternative to petrochemistry with realistic economical potential. Compared to classical sugar based bio-processes, bioelectrochemical processes promise improved yields, which could turn out to be a real game changer. The next generation of bio-production facilities may not only become more environmentally friendly, but also more economically competitive, a conclusion drawn jointly by scientists at UFZ and the UQ. In a recently published study in the scientific journal ChemSusChem, the researchers analysed for the first time the economical potential of this new technology using the example of an existing bio-process.

Microbial Bioelectrocatalysis & Bioelectrotechnology. Photo: André Künzelmann/ UFZ

Microbial Bioelectrocatalysis & Bioelectrotechnology.
Photo: André Künzelmann/ UFZ


Bioreactor with upgrade kit for the bioelectrochemical synthesis. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Bioreactor with upgrade kit for the bioelectrochemical synthesis.
Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ


Biofilm electrode. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Biofilm electrode. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ


In contrast to the energy and fuel sectors that are influenced by government targets for green alternatives, the chemical industry is mainly driven by market mechanisms. Companies and consumers are generally not prepared to pay a green premium for products. This means that compared to classical petrochemical processes, bio-production of chemicals needs to be cheaper, or in case of comparable costs, offer added value for companies to take the risk of investment into a new production process. Nevertheless, it is expected that the share of bio-derived‚ green’ chemicals will significantly rise over the next decade. This market is at the centre of the so called‚ ‘white biotechnology’, focussing on biotechnological processes for the production of industrial chemicals, which is distinct from medical (red) and plant (green) biotechnology. In novel processes at lab-scale, fuels and chemicals can already be produced bio-electrochemically, using microbial synthesis driven by electricity and carbon sources.

However, achieving a broader electrification of white biotechnology is still a challenge, due to the inherently different optimal conditions for electrochemical and microbial metabolic reactions. The current knowledge gaps still require a systematic R&D effort before the technology can be introduced more broadly, as the researchers highlight in their study.

In order to better estimate the economic potential of the new technology, the researchers used the well-established bioprocess of Lysine production and analysed how the supply of electricity as a feed for the bacteria could change the economics of this process. The scientists now compared the saving in raw materials costs, if the electricity would serve as a source of redox power, rather than sugar oxidation, so that all sugar could potentially be used to build the lysine molecules. Based on different electricity prices in the EU and the US, different scenarios had to be considered. Assuming current market prices for sucrose as the main feedstock and bulk electricity charges on the two continents it was estimated that the electrically enhanced production could save costs of between 8.4% and 18 % in the EU and the US, respectively. “This does not even consider savings in downstream processing due to a reduced production of by-products, which is expected due to the better redox balance” Dr Krömer (UQ) said. “If one speculates further and estimates savings over a ten year horizon for a typical 50000 t p.a. plant, one would save 30 Million US$ in the EU and 50 Million US$ in the US.” Dr Harnisch (UFZ) adds.

While this ignores the additional investment costs to enable the bio-electrochemistry, which can currently not be reliably estimated for large scale, this example nevertheless shows that bio-electrochemical production of chemicals can also become interesting from an economical point of view. Bioelectrochemical technology is an approach with far reaching potential, which is supported by the fact that ChemSusChem, a journal devoted to sustainable chemistry, highlights the current study on its cover page.
Tilo Arnhold


Harnisch, F., Rosa, L. F. M., Kracke, F., Virdis, B. and Krömer, J. O. (2014): Electrifying White Biotechnology: Engineering and Economic Potential of Electricity-Driven Bio-Production. ChemSusChem. doi: 10.1002/cssc.201402736
The studies were funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) (BMBF-Initiative „Nächste Generation biotechnologischer Verfahren - Biotechnologie 2020+"), the Helmholtz Association (Young Investigators Group & Research Program Renewable Energie) and the University of Queensland.

Further information:

Dr. Falk Harnisch
Helmholtz Center of Environmental Research (UFZ), Department of Environmental Microbiology,
Head of Research Group „Microbial Bioelectrocatalysis & Bioelectrotechnology“
Phone: +49-(0)341-235-1337
Dr. Falk Harnisch


Dr. Luis Filipe Morgado Rosa
Helmholtz Center of Environmental Research (UFZ), Department of Environmental Microbiology,
Research Group „Microbial Bioelectrocatalysis & Bioelectrotechnology“
Phone: +49-(0)341-235-1373-3237


Dr. Jens Krömer
University of Queensland
Phone: 07 3346 3222

or via

Helmholtz Center of Environmental Research (UFZ)
Tilo Arnhold, Susanne Hufe (UFZ press office)
Phone: +49-(0)341-235-1635, -1630

Further Link:

UFZ-Research Group „Microbial Bioelectrocatalysis & Bioelectrotechnology”:

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, biodiversity, the consequences of climate change and possible adaptation strategies, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, bio-energy, the effects of chemicals in the environment and the way they influence health, modelling and social-scientific issues. Its guiding principle: Our research contributes to the sustainable use of natural resources and helps to provide long-term protection for these vital assets in the face of global change. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the federal government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major and urgent issues in society, science and industry through scientific excellence in six research areas: Energy, earth and environment, health, key technologies, structure of matter as well as aviation, aerospace and transportation. The Helmholtz Association is the largest scientific organisation in Germany, with 35,000 employees in 18 research centres and an annual budget of around €3.8 billion. Its work is carried out in the tradition of the great natural scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894).