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Source: Cargill news release

Cargill has won the 2010 Industrial Biotechnology Award for distinguished accomplishments in biotechnology, presented by The American Chemical Society at its spring 2010 National Meeting and Exposition conference, March 21-25, in San Francisco.

The award honors both a Cargill technical innovation that dramatically reduces the chemical costs and environmental impact associated with lactic acid production, as well as the company's success in applying the new technology to produce lactic acid at industrial scale.

The innovation is a yeast engineered by Cargill researchers to act as a biocatalyst during fermentation to convert sugar to lactic acid. Traditionally, lactic acid production has relied on bacteria as biocatalysts. But bacterial catalysts require lime and sulfuric acid to be added to the process to extract the lactic acid. Not only does the removal of these chemicals contribute to lower costs, but this approach also significantly reduces the environmental footprint of the lactic acid and products made from it.

Cargill's new yeast biocatalyst significantly reduces the need for lime and sulfuric acid, as well as the production of gypsum, while delivering lactic acid production rates and yields similar to those of traditional lactic acid processes.

Two Cargill teams - one from its Biotechnology Development Center and the other from the operations and engineering groups at Cargill's lactic acid plant in Blair, NE - shared the work to develop and commercialize the new biocatalyst.

"Congratulations are very much in order for the teams that successfully engineered the biocatalyst and implemented the process at the Blair plant for industrial-scale production," said Chris Mallett, Cargill vice president of research and development. "Their efforts were impressive - and they are contributing to impressive results for Cargill."

Co-funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the biocatalyst development project was the product of nine years of genetic engineering, quantitative physiology, fermentation development and analytical chemistry. The Cargill team screened approximately 1,200 yeast strains before selecting one for modification. Development of the strain for commercial lactic acid production required a multi-disciplinary effort.

Once the strain delivered an economically and environmentally improved process at lab scale, it was handed over to Blair operations to scale the process for use in commodity-sized fermentors.

Lactic acid is a key ingredient in NatureWorks Ingeo™ poly-lactic acid (PLA), a bio-based performance alternative to petroleum-based plastics and synthetic fibers. NatureWorks is wholly owned by Cargill.

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