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A company called Genomatica, based in San Diego, says that it can make the key ingredient in spandex from sugar, and do so at a cost that competes with current chemical processes, which use fossil fuels. It has developed genetically engineered E. coli bacteria that excrete a chemical called 1,4-butanediol, or BDO, which is used to make a number of products, including textiles, car parts, and pharmaceuticals.

The company announced that it has demonstrated a proprietary process that allows it to produce the BDO at greater than 99 percent purity, a technical milestone that clears the way for the one-ton-per-day demonstration plant that it plans to build next year. (Total worldwide production of BDO is about 1.5 million tons.) The company also reported increasing the productivity of the bacteria to a level that it says is near what’s needed to compete with petroleum and natural-gas-based processes.

Christophe Schilling, Genomatica’s CEO, says that its process will reduce energy use for making the chemical by about 30 percent. It will also decouple its cost from the cost of fossil fuels. He predicts that the company’s process will cost 25 percent less than conventional methods used to make BDO, provided the price of oil stays above $40 to $50 a barrel and the cost of sugar is about 10 to 12 cents a pound.

A number of companies are developing or have recently developed biological processes to compete with ones that rely on fossil fuels. John Pierce, the vice president for technology at DuPont’s applied-biosciences division, says that recent improvements in genetic engineering are helping researchers design organisms to make various chemical products. In the late 1970s, DuPont attempted to make BDO with organisms but never commercialized the process. The company has been more successful since then, opening a plant in 2006 that converts corn into 1,3-propanediol (PDO), which is used to make a fibrous plastic called Sorona.

Pierce predicts that the next 15 years will see a significant shift toward using biological processes to make chemical intermediates, as fossil fuels become more expensive. “Historically, petroleum has been cheaper [than sugar]–that’s why we’ve had a petroleum age,” he says. “It’s been the place everyone goes to get cheap raw materials. We’re in a period of transition now, where it’s becoming more and more frequent that it’s cheaper to do a biological process.”

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Credit: Genomatica

Tagged: Business, Energy, polymers, plastic, sugars

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