Talk about recycling: “Green chemicals” startup Genomatica on Wednesday said it has bioengineered a petroleum-free version of a widely used industrial solvent that can be produced in shuttered ethanol plants.
You’ve most likely never heard of the chemical, methyl ethyl ketone, or MEK, but it is used as a solvent in paint and other coatings. Genomatic says it has bioengineered a microbe that ingests sugar and water and produces MEK without the toxic byproducts and environmental risks that come from making petroleum-based industrial chemicals.
The San Diego company – backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firms Mohr Davidow Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson – last year produced its first green chemical in the lab, 1,4‐butanediol, or BDO, which is a raw material found in everything from skateboard wheels to spandex. Genomatica plans to license its bio-chemicals to industrial producers.
When it came time to develop its next product, Genomatic CEO Christopher Gann says the company targeted a chemical that could be produced by existing industrial plants. “We said is it possible to shorten the development cycle by using existing assets,” Gann, a veteran of a veteran of Dow Chemical (DOW), told Green Wombat. “Can we develop a bioprocess for a chemical that would operate in the same conditions as corn ethanol.”
Why ethanol? The financial crisis has left a couple dozen ethanol plants idle. Gann and Genomatica president Christophe Schilling determined that existing ethanol plans could easily be repurposed to produce MEK. That’s potentially a win-win situation: Capital costs are kept to a minimum as new chemical factories don’t have to be built, while ethanol producers get a new lease on the life of their plants.
The food-versus-fuel controversy that has plagued corn ethanol producers is unlikely to pose a problem for Genomatica as the United States’ annual production of MEK is only about 57 million gallons (not 57,000 gallons as Green Wombat originally reported.), according to Gann. Still, it’s an attractively big market — about $2 billion, Gann estimates.
At least one ethanol producer, DAK Renewable Energy, has expressed interest in modifying some of its plants to make MEK, according to Genomatica.
So far, bio-MEK has only been produced in small batches in Genomatica’s lab. Meanwhile, Gann says the company is about to embark on a fundraising round to finance the construction of a demonstration plant in Southern California to produce BDO.