Synthesis and techno-economic assessment of microbial-based processes for terpenes production

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Background: Recent advances in metabolic engineering enable the production of chemicals from sugars through microbial bio-conversion. Terpenes have attracted substantial attention due to their relatively high prices and wide applications in different industries. To this end, we synthesize and assess processes for microbial production of terpenes. Results: To explain a counterintuitive experimental phenomenon where terpenes such as limonene (normal boiling point 176 °C) are often found to be 100% present in the vapor phase after bio-conversion (operating at only ~ 30 °C), we first analyze the vapor-liquid equilibrium for systems containing terpenes. Then, we propose alternative production configurations, which are further studied, using limonene as an example, in several case studies. Next, we perform economic assessment of the alternative processes and identify the major cost components. Finally, we extend the assessment to account for different process parameters, terpene products, ways to address terpene toxicity (microbial engineering vs. solvent use), and cellulosic biomass as a feedstock. We identify the key cost drivers to be (1) feed glucose concentration (wt%), (2) product yield (% of maximum theoretical yield) and (3) VVM (Volume of air per Volume of broth liquid per Minute, i.e., aeration rate in min-1). The production of limonene, based on current experimental data, is found to be economically infeasible (production cost ~ 465 $/kg vs. market selling price ~ 7 $/kg), but higher glucose concentration and yield can lower the cost. Among 12 terpenes studied, limonene appears to be the most reasonable short-term target because of its large market size (~ 160 million $/year in the US) and the relatively easier to achieve break-even yield (~ 30%, assuming a 14 wt% feed glucose concentration and 0.1 min-1 VVM). Conclusions: The methods proposed in this work are applicable to a range of terpenes as well as other extracellular insoluble chemicals with density lower than that of water, such as fatty acids. The results provide guidance for future research in metabolic engineering toward terpenes production in terms of setting targets for key design parameters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number294
JournalBiotechnology for Biofuels
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 27 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • General Energy
  • Biotechnology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment


  • Biphasic fermentation
  • Fatty acids
  • Isoprenoid
  • Limonene
  • Microbial production
  • Process simulation
  • Process systems engineering
  • Terpenoid
  • Vapor liquid equilibrium


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