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

Genomatica says it has successfully scaled up technology that uses genetically engineered microbes to make 1,4-butanediol (BDO)—a solvent and industrial chemical usually made from crude oil or natural gas.

The San Diego company, which touts itself as a leader in the “sustainable chemicals revolution,” worked with an industrial biotechnology partner in Lansing, MI, to make multiple batches of BDO—a chemical used to make automotive plastics, running shoes, and Spandex fibers.

The venture-backed company founded in 2000 is using biotechnology and renewable raw materials to eliminate energy-intensive industrial processes and petrochemicals in making the key intermediate chemical. The fermentation process also reduces production of greenhouse gases. In validating its technology, Genomatica says it is catalyzing a revolution in the petrochemical industry as it expands its development process to include other “high-value” chemicals with large existing markets.

Fermentation Tanks at MBI

Fermentation Tanks at MBI

Genomatica estimates the global market for BDO at $3 billion, with about half of BDO used in an acid-catalyzed process to make a precursor used in the production of Spandex.

The pilot-scale work shows “the magnificence of our technology platform,” Genomatica’s Chief Technology Officer Mark Burk told me in a recent telephone interview. “We have validated the process—the overall process that uses our platform technology to determine a path for genetically engineering an organism to produce BDO, as well as the industrial process for recovering, separating, and purifying BDO,” said Burk.

The pilot plant testing was done at MBI, a facility that operates as a non-profit subsidiary of the Michigan State University Foundation, and which 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.”

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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