The first product planned is isoprene – the monomer for a synthetic version of natural rubber. The E. Coli bacteria – produced using standard tools of metabolic engineering, and by turning off competing pathways – will turn the glycerine into ethanol, and then isoprene. Variations on this theme will allow the production of a broad range of organic chemicals, including organic acids and 1,2-propanediol, using a variety of feedstock besides glycerine, such as glucose and fatty acids.
According to Mr. Paul Cambell, CEO, the engineering plans for the Malaysian project are being finalised and start-up is planned for Q1 2013. The timing will be opportune – at least 14 new synthetic rubber plants are likely to be built between now and 2015.
Designer chemicals from algae
Solazyme, a biotech start-up from Palo Alto (California, USA), is pioneering development of algal strains that can produce oils that have tailored fatty acid compositions, with controlled chain lengths and unsaturation levels.
Algae are amongst the most prolific producers of oils and genetic engineering has allowed creation of special strains that grow in the dark to produce oils at a scale that allows for industrial scale operation.
The petroleum-type oils that are produced can be refined and processed to be 'drop-in' replacements into the existing hydrocarbon industry infrastructure. The technology is feedstock flexible – it can use a variety of sugars including sugarcane-based sucrose, corn-based dextrose and other biomass sources such as cellulosics.
Mr. Harrison Dillon, President & Chief Technology Officer, Solazyme, says the economics of production of these oils was brought down to below US$1000 per tonne one year ago, and "have gone down lower since."
Stacking of traits allows production of oils equivalent to palm oil, palm kernel oil or even lard. Again, these oils are drop-in replacements to their natural products in terms of functionality. The PKO equivalent, for example, can be used for manufacture of surfactants.
MEtabolic Explorer, headquartered in France, has developed technologies that facilitates the production of chemical compounds used in a wide range of everyday goods (textile fibres, paints, solvents, plastics and animal feed), by optimizing the metabolic yield of nonpathogenic bacteria in a contained, controlled environment.
METabolic is currently focusing on production of five compounds, of which three – Methionine (an amino acid); 1,3-Propanediol (PDO) and 1,2-Propanediol (MPG) – are at an advanced pilot or industrial stage. Two others – glycolic acid and butanol – are at a more basic stage of technology development. The company claims to be the first to produce methionine by fermentation and has an exclusive licensing arrangement for the technology with French company, Roquette.
METabolic is also investing in an 8,000-tpa plant for PDO in Malaysia, using glycerine as a starting material, and if all goes well, the plans are to ramp up capacity to 50,000-tpa, mainly for application in the manufacture of polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT), a speciality polyester.
MPG, which is an isomer of PDO, is a chemical that finds use in manufacture of polyester resins, besides other speciality applications. The technology for this product is at a pilot stage.
Waste to plastics ...
Micromidas, another Californiabased start-up, has developed a technology that can magically transform municipal sewage to polyhydroxybutylvalerate (PHBV), a biologicallyderived and biodegradable plastic, using carefully constructed microorganisms.
Mr. John Bissell, CEO, Micromidas justifies the choice of sewage as raw material: "The price of most carbohydrates is high as compared to the price of the target and all the more so if one looks at just the carbon price, as these products are highly oxygenated."
The technology, which has been developed by the company, can use a variety of organic waste materials, including palm oil mill effluent (POME), and through a process of anaerobic digestion produce bio-plastics. "The global production of POME can support 6.5- mtpa PHBV production," he says.
Micromidas is now building a demo-scale facility with a capacity of 1-tpd (tonne per day) in California.
... and to fuels
Another company, Terrabon (Houston, TX, USA), is leveraging disposed organic waste and biomass to create chemicals and drop-in transportation fuels such as gasoline and jet fuel. Founded in 1995, based on research work carried out at Texas A&M University, Terrabon has invested in a 150,000- tpa demonstration unit in Bryan (TX, USA).
The technology enables the company to convert any biodegradable feedstock into acids, which are then chemically converted stepwise into ketones, alcohols and drop-in fuels, through a combination of biological and chemical conversions. The first biological step is akin to the natural fermentation in the rumen of cattle and produces carboxylic acids (such as acetic acid, propionic acid and butyric acid), which in a conventional aneraobic fermentation system would go further to methane.
According to Mr. Cesar Granda, Chief Technology Officer, the process uses no enzymes, does not need sterile/ aspetic conditions and does not employ any genetically modified organisms. "The technology is ultra-feedstockagnostic, i.e. it can process cellulose, proteins, chitins etc. and has been tested on a variety of these."