San Diego’s Genomatica Scales Up Bio-Based Technology in Michigan Demo

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specializes in “de-risking and scale-up of bio-based technologies.” Burk said the demonstration also confirmed that Genomatica can successfully accelerate the development time—and substantially reduce the development and production costs—of using alternative feed-stocks, such as sugar cane and corn syrup, to replace fossil fuels in a host of petrochemical manufacturing processes.

Burk noted that DuPont has taken a similar approach in its development of a “green” production method for 1,3-Propanediol, a chemical building block used to make composites, adhesives, coatings, antifreeze, and wood paint. Cargill also is working with MBI to develop new ways of making polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic used around the world.

Burk estimates that Genomatica’s fermentation process for producing BDO reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent because it does not require the use of refinery cracking units to heat the raw material. Although Genomatica has estimated the cost advantages of its process, Burk said the company is not publicly disclosing that information.

Genomatica’s Burk said the fermentation process itself posed the biggest unknown in scaling up work that had been proven on the laboratory bench using a 30-liter fermenting tank. In the pilot project, the fermentation process requires mixing a 3,000-liter broth of genetically engineered organisms, sugar, and air. The company used both dextrose (from corn syrup) and sucrose (from sugar cane). Burk said sucrose is especially attractive as an ingredient because it is very low-cost.

Genomatica is now designing a commercial-scale demonstration plant, which will be big enough to produce about a ton of BDO a day. Burk said the company has not yet disclosed where it plans to build the plant, but such a facility would require a 30,000-liter fermentation vessel (about 7,925 gallons) housed in a facility that could be as big as 20,000 square feet. The San Diego company says it has more than 100 issued and pending patents protecting intellectual property that covers pathways for genetically engineering various strains of organisms to produce 20 of the top 100 intermediate and basic chemicals.

Since the company was founded, Genomatica has raised a total of $38.5 million (including $15 million in March) from investors that include TPG Biotech, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Alloy Ventures, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. That should be enough for the company to move ahead with construction of a commercial BDO demonstration facility. As Burk put it, “We believe we will have the economics to move forward.”

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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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