Green Chemistry Company Turns Sugar Into an Industrial Chemical

By Eliza Strickland | September 18, 2008 7:16 am

Spandex World!A “sustainable chemical” company called Genomatica has developed a way to use sugar and genetically engineered bacteria to produce a common industrial chemical that’s usually produced using petroleum, and which is found in everything from Spandex to car bumpers. By using sugar from sugar cane as a feedstock, industrial chemical companies can get a cheaper alternative to petroleum-derived chemicals, while investing in processes that are less polluting and nontoxic, said Genomatica CEO Chris Gann [CNET].

Genomatica produces the chemical, 1,4-butanediol (BDO), by feeding pure glucose derived from sugarcane to E. coli bacteria, which has been engineered to produce BDO. “We have engineered the organism such that it has to secrete that product in order for it to grow,” says [company president] Christophe Schilling…. “The interests of the organism are aligned with our interests: It grows faster when it produces more” [Scientific American].

Other green technology companies are experimenting with using bacteria to turn sugar or cellulose into biofuels, but thus far few companies have tackled the chemical industry. However, rising oil prices are having a ripple effect, and industrial microbiology began to gain momentum a few years ago. Historically, microbiologists concentrated on food or pharmaceuticals. Exploiting bugs for other purposes, though, makes a lot of sense. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about FDA testing [Greentech Media].

Genomatica executives say that their process will eventually be cheaper than conventional techniques even if the price of oil drops to $50 a barrel. The annual global market for BDO is about 3 billion pounds, or $4 billion; it’s used in plastics, solvents, pharmaceuticals, automotive components and apparel fibers [Forbes]. The company plans to build a pilot plant to prove its technology on a larger scale, but will then license its process to industrial chemical manufacturers.

Image: flickr/Seth W.

  • Earth Butcher

    What happens when these BDO-producing bacteria find their way – inevitably – into the wild? Will our bodies and earth become BDO dumping grounds?

    Bacteria evolves rapidly, so even if this modified e.coli can’t currently exist in the wild, it would also seem inevitable that it would adapt.

    I’m not saying it’s a bad idea…just wondering what the consequences are.

  • G10 FR4 Melamine

    Can an organic substance like this be used with a Melamine based product with grades like G10-FR4?

    Thanks. Serious replies only please 😉

  • HHO Gas Generator

    This reminds me of new innovations like hho gas generators for cars and welding.

    There are so many interesting developments that it continues to inspire me. Let’ s keep the ideas flowing!


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