I have freedom to develop my own ideas – in using biotechnology to create plastic monomers

Oliver Englund Örn
Biotechnology, Lund University

“I have freedom to develop my own ideas – in using biotechnology to create plastic monomers”

2021-07-02. Oliver Englund Örn always knew he wanted to do a PhD in biotechnology. The biggest pull was the freedom to develop his own ideas, and his own critical thinking.

Today, he is four years into his research on how to produce sustainable aromatic building blocks for plastics, in STEPS work package one.

– I like the complexity of biotechnology. You can do so much with it. That really excites me. There is a lot that needs to happen to create a monomer from a single cell!

His current work focuses on genetically modifying strains of Escherichia coli, a bacteria that normally lives in your intestines, to produce protocatechuic acid, PCA. This is a precursor for other compounds like vanillic acid and vanillin that can be used as building blocks for plastics. To create the molecules, he feeds the E. coli bacteria glucose, which makes it produce the by-product PCA – as part of its natural growth.

– I use and modify the natural metabolism of the cell to produce PCA. You can compare it to beer production, where you use glucose to produce ethanol. It is the same process as when we run and produce lactic acid in our muscles. PCA is produced when the glucose is metabolised.

Oliver Englund Örn explains that you need several steps to turn PCA molecules into monomers for plastics. For example, the PCA needs to be recovered from the bacterial culture and then purified. Alternatively, the E. coli can be genetically modified further to make other building blocks.  In that sense, PCA production is different from producing HMF – 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, which can also be used as building blocks and is produced in a chemical process.

– I really like to work with natural cell cultures.
In the future, Oliver Englund Örn hopes to develop other types of sustainable building blocks for plastics.

– You look at plastics and there are so many types of it. It is not enough to have only one building block. We need a broad palette of biobased plastics to replace the use of fossil fuel. Biotechnology offers great potential to develop new ways to use glucose as a carbon source in plastics.

In 2022, Oliver Englund Örn will finish his research. He can see many potential uses for his work in the future. Especially since one can produce the PCA locally if glucose is sourced from Swedish sugar production or from waste products from the forest industry.

– The ideal for me is that someone can take my research further and produce a biobased plastic product. Otherwise, my ideas will end at the research level. It would be great to see a company solely focused on producing plastics from glucose. But for that to happen we need to get over the expectation that plastic should be cheap. Today, the cost of glucose is still too high, he concludes.