Phytonix Turns Photosynthetic Bacteria Into Tiny Chemical Factories

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clostridium bacteria. Species of clostridium can produce acetone and butanol from starch, he explains. During World War I, that capability was used to produce acetone for making explosives. More recent clostridium research has focused on butanol rather than acetone, because butanol has higher industrial value, Bruno-Barcena says. While butanol can be used as biofuel, he says that hasn’t caught on because it’s more expensive to produce than gasoline.

Bruno-Barcena is unfamiliar with Phytonix but he says its photosynthetic approach, if proven, could be promising for commercial butanol production. The challenge he sees for Phytonix is scaling the process while also ensuring it competes on cost with current butanol production methods, particularly if the costs of inputs for conventional butanol drops.

“This is all a game of raw materials,” Bruno-Barcena says. “As raw materials go up and down, [chemical manufacturers] switch.”

It takes chemicals to make chemicals. Chemical companies, such as BASF and Dow Chemical, make butanol in a process employing the petroleum-derived chemical propylene. While gasoline prices are falling in tandem with plummeting oil prices—the price of a barrel of oil has dropped more than $30 in the last three months—petrochemical prices have been slower to fall. Propylene’s 1 percent drop in October to $1,311 per metric ton was the smallest price decrease of any chemical tracked in the Platts Global Petrochemical Index. Year over year, Platt’s basket of seven benchmark petrochemicals is down just 2 percent.

Noting propylene’s relatively stable price, Dannenberg insists Phytonix can compete with the big chemical companies, which spend $4 to $5 to make each gallon of butanol. Dannenberg says Phytonix’s technology can produce butanol for $2 a gallon, perhaps even less. Cutting the price by more than half could threaten big chemicals companies. But they could also become partners. Dannenberg says both BASF and Dow have expressed interest in Phytonix’s technology, though he concedes that chemical companies aren’t likely to invest or partner with any early-stage company until its technology reaches the demonstration stage.

Focus on Photosynthesis

So far, biofuel technologies have struggled for traction at commercial scale. In just one example, Berkeley, CA-based Bio Architecture Lab, which farmed seaweed whose sugars were fermented to produce ethanol, landed high profile industry partnerships with chemical company DuPont (NYSE: DD) and oil and gas producer Statoil. But Bio Architecture abandoned the effort last year after concluding that its raw seaweed was worth more than the processed fuel.

Dannenberg founded Phytonix in 2009 after seeing that most biofuel research focused on biomass fermentation, not photosynthesis. Though Dannenberg has a zoology degree, he had spent the bulk of his career in computers and semiconductors. He later worked for an Asheville capital management firm investing in green and alternative energy. Dannenberg says his interest in bioenergy stems from his original biology background.

The synthetic biology knowledge for modifying cyanobacteria is not concentrated in any one place, so Dannenberg searched the world for expertise. Phytonix has partnerships with Old Dominion University, South Dakota State University, and Uppsala University in Sweden. That wide-ranging search led … Next Page »

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