Electrocatalytic upgrading of itaconic acid to methylsuccinic acid using fermentation broth as a substrate solution
Biomass presents a promising renewable feedstock allowing access to valuable platform chemicals. In particular, biotechnological processes enable a highly selective product formation but are carried out in aqueous electrolyte-containing solutions. Consequently, the separation of usually polar products poses severe challenges on product separation associated with a high energy demand of product purification. A direct further catalytic transformation within fermentation broth reduces the number of unit operations and the need for an energy intensive separation. We herein study the potential of a chemo- and electrochemical reduction of itaconic acid (IA) to methylsuccinic acid (MS) using acidic media or crude fermentation broth as a case study. Despite an efficient chemo-catalytic hydrogenation of neat IA over Ru/C or RANEY® nickel, the presence of various salts as well as glucose prohibits a direct chemo-catalytic valorisation in fermentation broth. In contrast, the electrochemical hydrogenation enabled very benign conditions. The selection of the electrode material proved to be decisive and had, together with the voltage, a strong influence on the conversion and faradaic efficiency of electrolysis facilitating 99% faradaic efficiency. The conversion of IA only slightly declined for an IA fermentation broth instead of neat IA in a diluted sulfuric acid environment reaching 60 versus 64%. Moreover, a full conversion and yield could also be achieved by simple optimizations of the reaction period and the substrate concentration. The electrocatalytic valorisation of a crude biotechnological product stream reduces not only energy demand and unit operations but presents a promising approach to introduce renewable electrical energy in biomass utilization.