Monster Mash, or the case of the micro-spider's web

November 25, 2011 |

Global Bioenergies and LanzaTech attempt a mash-up of their technologies – to produce isobutene from carbon monoxide gas – can it be done?

Is this a pathway for future mash-ups? What exotic materials may result from this post-carbohydrate partnership?

In France, Global Bioenergies and LanzaTech announced that they will be collaborating on a feasibility study to examine whether Global Bioenergies’ pathway, leading to the direct production of isobutylene, can be functionally transferred into LanzaTech’s carbon monoxide-using microorganism.

Making good molecules out of evildoers

From a commercial point of view, the attraction is the potential to produce important chemicals not only from a renewable resource, but one which is decoupled from a commodity (whether that be petroleum, natural gas or sugar).

Instead, it is produced from the dread carbon monoxide – which, vented in quantity results in something far more immediately worse than, say, global warning (e.g. death), must be expensively scrubbed out of industrial off-gases, and for which there are few current commercial uses.

Imagine, if you will, Superman as a chemist, figuring out a way to make, say, perfectly harmless biofuel for trucks delivering the Daily Planet, via a microorganism that ferments kryptonite.

From a product point of view, here’s the attraction. Global Bioenergies has developed a route to convert carbohydrates directly to isobutylene.  Isobutylene is not a molecule that is made in nature; Global Bioenergies is the first company to demonstrate the production of this petrochemical by a biological system.

Why isobutylene? It’s a key intermediate in the production of butyl rubber, anti oxidants (BHT, BHA), gasoline additives (isopentanes), C8-C12 kerosene range molecules, and so on.

Looking at the collaboration

From a collaboration point of view, its one of the smaller group mash-ups featuring early-stage peer companies. Generally, collaborations to date have featured nimble start-ups paired with giants (e.g. BP and Verenium, OPX Bio and Dow) or two giants paired with each other (e.g,. BP and Dupont), or companies that are joining front-ends to back-ends (e.g. Rentech, ClearFuels).

Philippe Marlière, co-founder of Global Bioenergies and president of its Scientific Advisory Board, comments: “Carbon monoxide combines the attractive features of biochemical versatility and virtuous sourcing. Most importantly, carbon monoxide retains a large part of the energy stored in photosynthetic biomass when it is generated by pyrolysis from agricultural or municipal waste and non-edible plants.”

LanzaTech’s chief executive Dr Jennifer Holmgren says “ This work is a natural extension of the Global Biotechnologies and LanzaTech technology platforms. LanzaTech’s strategy is to diversify its product portfolio beyond ethanol to key chemical intermediates and drop in aviation fuels through developing key technology partnerships. Global Biotechnologies’ technology could contribute to this strategy as isobutene can be directly converted to polymers and jet fuel relevant C-12 molecules.”

Weaving the collaborative web – where could all this go? Polyethylene fibers spun by synthetic micro-spiders?

Here at the Digest, we wonder at the scientific implications. Could microbes ultimately be taught a whole range of otherwise artificial chemical pathways? Right now, there’s emphasis on using microbes to ferment a basic oil or alcohol, followed by upgrading to a more valuable material through more conventional petrochemical processes.

But, what about direct production, through advanced synthetic biology. It’s something that Solazyme works on, and LanzaTech is now embarking on. Where will it take us? Polyethylene fibers spun by micro-spiders? Silk-and-steel hybrids milked continuously from CO-munching e.coli? Microbes that scrub ambient CO2 and eat natural gas, to produce exotic, hyper compressible fuels with energy densities far beyond today’s molecules? Well, we get ahead of ourselves.

The Global Bioenergies back-story

In October of 2010, Global Bioenergies has announced that they have achieved a key goal in their development of a bio-based isobutanol process.  Marc Delcourt, CEO and cofounder of Global explains, “We have achieved our goal to bioproduce isobutene in vivo, ahead of target. We are now concentrating our efforts on increasing both the rate and scale of fermentation. We plan to carry out pilot plant tests prior to the industrial exploitation of the process. This phase will require new financial investment.”

The process developed by Global Bioenergies allows the conversion of plant resources such as cane or beet sugar, crop-derived starch or agricultural and forestry lignocellulosic waste (e.g. straw) into isobutene, one of the key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

The process involves the spontaneous volatilization of gaseous isobutene from the fermentation broth, thereby avoiding two major drawbacks of other fermentation technologies – the accumulation of products in the medium up to concentrations toxic for the production microorganism, and the high energy requirement associated with downstream extraction processes (e.g. distillation).

In late July, Synthos and Global Bioenergies agreed to develop a new process for the conversion of renewable resources into butadiene, involving research funding, multi-million euro development fees, royalty payments, repartition of exploitation rights, and a $2 million equity investment in Global Bioenergies.

Butadiene is a chemical building block used to manufacture synthetic rubber, nylon, latices, ABS plastics and other polymers. The spot price of butadiene has recently rocketed to over $3/kg, and the 10MT annual trade is worth $30bn at current prices.

Under the agreement, Global Bioenergies would receive R&D funding, multi-million euro development fees, and royalty payments from Synthos on sales of bio-butadiene for the manufacturing of rubber. Global Bioenergies will retain the exclusive rights on non-rubber applications.

The LanzaTech back-story

Earlier this month, LanzaTech signed its first commercial customer, marking a milestone in the clean energy technology company’s global development. The customer is Concord Enviro Systems (India) Pvt. Ltd (CES), a Mumbai-based company which has broad ranging investments in various forms of renewable energy. The company’s portfolio of waste-to-energy includes municipal solid waste (MSW) to energy at the largest contributor. Through a group company Concord Blue, a German-Indian company, it provides advanced gasification technology for syngas generation from a wide variety of waste streams.

Last month, Virgin Atlantic teamed with LanzaTech to create renewable jet fuel that will power planes Shanghai and Delhi to Heathrow within two to three years. LanzaTech is working on producing its fuel in India and China, making those two destinations easy targets for implementation of the ‘green fleet.’

In August, LanzaTech signed an agreement with Pennsylvania-based Harsco to develop plans to present the LanzaTech biotechnology to Harsco’s major steel mill customers and explore potential business relationships for installing and operating commercial facilities at selected sites throughout the world. The agreement with Harsco will now accelerate the introduction of this technology to steelmaking customers throughout the Americas, Europe and selected emerging markets.

Partnerships with Mitsui, LCY, and talks with Indian Oil have also kept LanzaTech in the news this year.

It’s foundational partnership? In March, LanzaTech, Baosteel Group Corporation, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) aunched the construction of a plant that will use LanzaTech’s gas fermentation technology for the production of fuel ethanol from steel mill off-gases. Last month, LanzaTech and Baosteel signed a joint venture agreement that will see the construction of a 100,000 gallon a year demo plant, with the intention of quickly scaling the model again for the first commercial plant in China.

Construction of the plant is expected to take six months and production will begin late in the third quarter of this year. The company’s commercial plants will have a 50 million gallon capacity.

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Category: Fuels

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