Genomatica Clears Way for ‘Sustainable Chemical’ Demo Plant

San Diego’s Genomatica says it has checked off another technical accomplishment in its quest to take the “petroleum” out of the petrochemical industry.

After showing last year that it had engineered bacteria to make butanediol, a key industrial chemical also known as BDO, Genomatica says it now can make BDO in commercial grade batches. In an announcement today, Genomatica says its latest technical feat clears the way for construction of a small-scale industrial demonstration facility. The startup got $20 million in venture funding two years ago from Silicon Valley’s Mohr Davidow Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Alloy Ventures, so Genomatica may require another venture round before it embarks on construction.

Christophe Schilling

Christophe Schilling

“The recent achievement allows us to know that every step in our process works” and “fully validates” the technology, Genomatica’s Christophe Schilling told me last week. He estimates that construction of a BDO demonstration plant could begin early next year and would cost between $10 million and $15 million. Schilling, who co-founded the company in 2000, was named as Genomatica’s CEO last month, replacing former CEO Chris Gann.

Like most hydrocarbon products, BDO is currently produced from crude oil under tremendous heat and pressure in oil refinery “cracking” units. So Genomatica’s approach represents a potential revolution for the chemical industry, one that would replace an industrial process based on fossil fuel with a biotech-based process that uses sustainable technology.

Another amazing factoid in this is that BDO is normally toxic to E coli. Yet Genomatica has engineered the bacteria’s genes to churn out BDO while consuming sugar, oxygen, and other nutrients in fermentation tanks.

The global petrochemical industry makes about 3 billion pounds of BDO a year for a worldwide market estimated at almost $3 trillion a year.

The colorless, viscous liquid is what Schilling calls an “intermediate chemical.” As I reported in October, the pharmaceutical industry uses BDO to make … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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