Outside of ExxonMobil (XOM), petrochemical companies would seem to be the least likely to join the sustainability movement sweeping corporations worldwide. After all, how do you green an industry predicated on petroleum as a key ingredient?
The answer, according to San Diego startup Genomatica, is to replace hydrocarbons with carbohydrates. The company is announcing Tuesday that it has bioengineered a microorganism that ingests sugar and water to produce a chemical called 1,4‐butanediol. Commonly known as BDO, the chemical is a raw material found in everything from golf balls to skateboard wheels to spandex. Although Genomatica is planning a pipeline of bioengineered chemicals, BDO alone is a $4 billion business.
“By using carbohydrates versus hydrocarbons, we can produce BDO with less energy and that translates into a smaller carbon footprint,” Genomatica CEO Christopher Gann told Green Wombat.
So far, Genomatica – founded in 2000 and backed by marquee Silicon Valley venture capital firms Mohr Davidow Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson – has only produced batches of BDO in the laboratory. But Gann, a veteran of Dow Chemical (DOW), and company president Christophe Schilling claim that by the middle of 2009 they will be able to make bioengineered BDO cheaper than the petroleum-based chemical.
“This is a disruptive technology,” Gann says.
If Genomatica lives up to its claims of success in the lab, the technology indeed could potentially turn the petrochemical industry on its head.
First, anything that removes petroleum from a manufacturing process is going to get noticed. (While transportation accounts 70% of the 20.7 million barrels of oil consumed in the United States daily, a significant portion is used for chemicals – up to 25% in the gulf states home to the nation’s petrochemical industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)
Second, Genomatica’s microorganism leaves behind none of the nasty byproducts of petrochemical production, avoiding the health risks and costs of containing, storing and cleaning up toxic waste.
Lastly, Gann and Schilling say Genomatica’s technology frees BDO production from vast and accident-prone petrochemical complexes. “Since the raw materials are sugar and water, we can locate next to where there’s sugar and water or locate next to where the product can be consumed,” says Gann.
The startup was spun out of the University of California at San Diego, where Schilling and his mentor, Professor Bernhard Palsson, developed a technology platform to design virtual microorganisms. Schilling compares the process to the way airliners are designed entirely on computers.
“It allows us to model and simulate how microorganisms would survive and grow,” he says. “We can now go ahead and figure out the best way to engineer the organism to perform a particular task. We use off-the-shelf technologies and some proprietary ones to produce the organisms.”
Genomatica, which has raised $20 million from the Silicon Valley VCs as well as some Icelandic angel investors, will make money by licensing its technology to chemical companies. Gann and Schilling declined to identify other chemicals in their product pipeline but said they were related to the class of petrochemicals known as “cracker-plus-one.”