Bringing Biomass to the Masses

Article by Adam Duckett

A flagbearer for biotech companies looking to replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based alternatives, Geno is researching alternatives to traditional methods of producing nylon, personal care products, and palm oil – it even wants to get its hands on flags, too, as Adam Duckett finds out

YOU MAY recognise the company by its original name, Genomatica. Less punchy perhaps, but it did more to tip you off that this is a company dealing with the nature of the genome. The “matica” may have gone but Geno’s core remains; its use of genetically engineered organisms that could help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. By fermenting bio-based resources into identical chemical feedstocks, these can then be used in existing process plants.

Sanchari Ghosh (pictured) is an engineer at Geno working to realise the vision on a grander scale. “The goal is to have the whole world wear our nylon-based T-shirts,” says Ghosh, who laughs lightly.

Admittedly, there’s a long way to go yet. While US-based Geno has helped athletic-wear maker lululemon launch its first clothing made from plant-based nylon, production of Geno’s bio-based alternative has yet to reach commercial scale.

Ghosh was part of the process engineering team that produced the caprolactam, a nylon precursor, that lululemon used to make its first bio-based sports shirts last year. The clothing company wants all of its products made from sustainable materials by 2030, and a crucial step in the journey is finding a new route to caprolactam that avoids the petrochemical feedstocks relied on today. If Geno can help sustainably minded companies get there, it’s in with a chance of disrupting a nylon market estimated to be worth US$22bn a year.

Ghosh is not allowed to reveal what the production targets are or when commercial operations are slated to start, only that the process is at pre-commercial scale and the company is working with partners to push it further.

Picking a path

We find industry standing at a crossroads. Does it continue along the mapped, well-trodden path of using fossil fuels, in this case relying on the likes of benzene for the intermediate chemicals it turns into products, or does it turn off and chart a course along a greener but unfamiliar path?

Ghosh, who was born in India, faced the same dilemma after graduating from a chemical engineering course at Rutgers University in the US. She applied to a variety of different post-graduate programmes including biotech and traditional petchem. It was an offer from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to investigate making fuels from plants that tipped her hand.

“I realised that it’s the source of these everyday products that we use that needs to change,” she says. “Solving a problem as big as that? It really reeled me in. So that was the moment when I decided OK, I’m going to pick the sustainable biotech side and not do petrochemical engineering.”

Ghosh now works as a process development engineer at Geno using the rheological expertise she honed during her PhD.

“Rheology is the study of how fluids move and deform…it’s kind of like figuring out their personality if they did a personality test.”

Ghosh explains that in general, biomass is a sheer thinning fluid. The more force you apply to it, the easier it is for the fluid to flow. But then the degree of shear thinning will be different depending on what kind of biomass is used.

“It’s important to know how these fluids behave. Because ultimately, we’re trying to create replacements for petroleum-based materials.”

The goal is to develop replacements that can be used in existing production processes. Inevitably, bio-based alternatives are going to be more costly as they’re competing with established conventional sources that engineers have spent decades on, squeezing out incremental production efficiencies. If customers also have to invest in new production facilities to use these greener feedstocks the technology might be adopted much more slowly, if at all.

“We want the sustainable chemical to be a drop-in, right? We want it to behave the exact same way. So that’s often a challenge because it’s hard to get the exact like for like. That’s when my rheological skillset has really been useful in characterising differences and similarities between plant-based and petroleum-based chemicals.”

Geno has already had commercial success developing bio-based drop-ins and has licensed its biomanufacturing fermentation processes to some of the largest players in the chemicals industry.

Cargill is investing US$300m in a US-based plant to produce 65,000 t/y of bio-based 1,4-butanediol (BDO). Cargill expects the facility in Iowa will start production early next year and will save up to 93% of emissions compared with conventional production. BASF will buy bio-BDO from Cargill to produce polytetrahydrofuran to make elastic fibres and thermoplastic polyurethanes, and tetrahydrofuran for pharmaceuticals.

Geno is also manufacturing commercial volumes of a bio-based version of butylene glycol, which is a moisturising agent used in personal care products. Targets are set on many other chemicals too. It is working with Covestro to scale up production of another nylon intermediate – hexamethylenediamine – and it has formed a venture with Unilever to develop an alternative to palm oil.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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