Genomatica hits huge milestone, produces world’s 1st ton of renewable nylon intermediate

February 1, 2020 |

In California arrives the news that 80 years after nylon’s first commercial production, Genomatica achieved a new milestone for the material — its production of the world’s first renewably-sourced ton of the key ingredient for nylon-6, made from plants instead of crude oil. But what does this really mean for the future of nylon?

A bit about nylon and the nylon market

Other than the usual hosiery that may first come to mind with nylon, you probably own something made from nylon…an umbrella, a rug, clothing, sewing threads, ropes, maybe even your car interior…but maybe you didn’t realize that it comes from crude oil, a fossil fuel.

Yikes. In case that didn’t make you feel guilty enough, nylon, the first totally synthetic fiber to be made into consumer products including apparel and carpet, is responsible for an estimated 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year through traditional production that begins with crude oil, according to Genomatica.

With the rise of fast fashion and the ongoing demand for nylon-based products, more sustainably sourced nylon ingredients are essential to reducing the industry’s environmental impacts. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation echoed this sentiment in its 2017 report: A New Textiles Economy, which cited making effective use of resources and moving to renewable ingredients as one of four core ambitions to realize this vision of a new global textiles system.

That’s why many are jumping for joy at Genomatica’s recent news, though it goes way beyond apparel.

Genomatica’s innovation, alongside partner and major European nylon producer Aquafil, will produce 100% renewably-sourced nylon that delivers equivalent performance to conventional nylon, but with lower environmental impact. This bio-based nylon has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a $10 billion global industry that produces over five million tons of nylon-6 per year, to make carpet, clothing, car interiors, engineered plastics and food packaging.

A bit about the world’s 1st ton

So where was this landmark first ton made? Not in Genomatica’s hometown of San Diego, California like you might expect, but in Slovenia. At ACIES BIO more specifically.

How is the stuff made? The naturally sourced nylon, which by the way was recently recognized as a special mention in TIME’s Best Inventions, is made possible by fermentation — similar to making beer.

Genomatica engineered a microorganism and production process that ferments the sugars found in plants to make the chemical intermediate for nylon-6. This milestone marks Genomatica’s successful scaling of this process to produce one ton of the intermediate. The chemical is then converted into nylon-6 polymer chips and yarn by Aquafil in Slovenia.

For more info, see Genomatica’s “remaking nylon” video.

And now for the big question, what is it, exactly?

Really good question, for somewhat mysteriously there’s no word from Planet Genomatica on what chemical intermediate we are looking at. After all, the world is filled with intermediates — so what is it? For the answer, we turn to the resident gurus at Nexant, and Steve Slome offered:

The chemical Genomatica likely produced is caprolactam, it’s the key reactant for the production of nylon-6. 

A bit about Genomatica

The Digest knew good things were coming back in October 2018 when we reported “Genomatica Magica – $90 Million Financing, Commercialized Technologies, Biobased Nylon.” We referred to the magic as being all about the technologies and the fact that they are commercial technologies that impact everyday plastics and personal care products and that they had new technologies under development that target textiles and fibers – like nylon which is now here. Oh, and they aren’t just banishing fossil fuels…they explicitly are staying away from non-sustainable palm oil too.

As reported in The Digest in November, Genomatica is targeting the natural cosmetics and personal care sectors with the Daicel partnership for Brontide – Genomatica’s Brontide butylene glycol made using a direct fermentation process that starts with renewable, plant-derived sugars instead of crude oil.

For more info, check out “From Ideation to Commercial Realization: The Digest’s 2019 Multi-Slide Guide to Genomatica’s Chemicals and Materials” here.

A bit about partnerships

Global partners have played a key role in accelerating Genomatica’s bio-nylon program. Aquafil was the first to join Genomatica’s program, bringing funding support and nylon-related chemical, quality and market expertise.

Additionally, Project EFFECTIVE, a consortium with 12 partners including major brands like H&M, Vaude, Carvico and Balsan, was formed to drive the production of more sustainable bio-based fibers for widely-used consumer products made from renewable feedstocks.

Reactions

“DuPont’s landmark production of nylon eighty years ago introduced a highly versatile staple material to the apparel, textile and engineering product industries,” said Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica. “It’s a terrific material, and now, with the power of biotechnology, we can reinvent where it comes from. This is a major step forward in offering a new, more sustainable future with a better nylon for the full range of industries it serves.”

“Ninety five percent of Americans think sustainability is a good goal and we’re seeing consumers demand more sustainable products,” Schilling went on to say. “Our technology provides brands with a solution to meet this consumer demand for better-sourced products.”

One reaction from the fashion business is noted in Vogue Business where they report that “Many new fabrics marketed as eco-friendly, however, aren’t completely naturally biodegradable. Recycled nylon, for instance, is increasingly popular with the fashion industry, which could also start exploring bio-nylon as a commercial option. But both recycled and bio-nylon have the same chemical structure as conventional nylon, says Mulvihill, who has a PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. “It will persist in the environment in the same way.”

Genomatica made a good point though and told Vogue Business, “Bio-nylon that isn’t recycled will not biodegrade on its own. Some things are meant to be durable, which is why, for those products, there should be strong recycling or reuse programmes,” a Genomatica spokesperson wrote by email to Vogue Business. “For bio-nylon, we set out to create a product that had a lesser environmental impact from the beginning, with the same qualities and performance that we enjoy with conventional nylon.”

Bottom Line

Ok, so nylon is meant to last which is much needed when you are talking about ropes, carpets or rugs, and many other consumer uses and the fact that it can now be made without using crude oil is a huge improvement. Recycling and reusing programs could certainly be a way to integrate a more sustainable biobased nylon into a circular economy and resolve any concerns folks might have about its persistence in the environment.

Genomatica has already commercialized products to make better plastics, spandex and cosmetics, now has proven it with this nylon news, and is working on household cleaners and other consumer, commercial products, so stay tuned as we expect more to come from them as the biobased magic continues.

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