Intrexon makes farnesene from methane: hot route to low-cost jet fuels and diesels?

July 1, 2014 |


Second Product of Intrexon’s Proprietary Bioconversion Platform Following Isobutanol

Who’s happy, who’s bumming — and how far along is the work, really? The Digest looks at Intrexon’s breakthrough.

Gas-to-Liquids approach significantly more cost-efficient versus conventional methods, company says.

In California, Intrexon announced the bioconversion of methane to farnesene in the lab with its proprietary platform. Farnesene is a key building block chemical for diesel fuel, and also for other lubricants and specialty products, including cosmetics, rubber, and plastics. This is the second product, following isobutanol, which Intrexon has upgraded from natural gas employing its unique cellular engineering capabilities.

Background on the technology

To achieve industrial-scale bioconversion of natural gas to chemicals, lubricants and fuels, Intrexon is developing microbial cell lines genetically enhanced to convert methane to higher carbon content compounds at ambient temperatures and pressures, thereby reducing the significant expenditures compared to standard gas-to-liquid (GTL) processes. Traditional conversion platforms rely on costly thermochemical catalytic processes, such as the Fischer-Tropsch method of carbon upgrading, or depend on available sugar-based technologies or plant-based feedstocks, which are expensive sources of carbon.

Raising gobs of money

To capitalize on the breakthrough of bioconversion of natural gas to higher value targets, Intrexon formed a joint venture called Intrexon Energy Partners (IEP) in March 2014. IEP raised $75 million from its partners to help fund commercialization of the technology for fuels and lubricants.

Two companies that might be wetting themselves right about now

Well, there’s Amyris, and there’s Calysta. The former is making farnesene from sugar — where the carbon is twice as expensive or more. The latter has been training methanotrophs to make fascinating molecules but hadn’t quite (that is to say, publicly) cracked the fuel markets (i.e. the Mother of All Markets)

But one reason why one of them might take comfort

One thing to accomplish magic in the lab. Another thing to do it in the field. Amyris stumbled in scale-up, so might others. So might this. We’ll see – no reason to be pessimistic just yet.

Why one other company might not be rejoicing and ringing in those sheaves

What about Renewable Energy Group, which just shelled out $$ for LS9, that is supposed to make jet fuel from sugar, among other products? Interestingly, Intrexon energy SVP Bob Walsh is a former LS9 CEO.

The big winners in prospect

Well, think airlines, down the line . Biofuels are much better than natgas on renewable attributes, but airlines need fuels now, not later, and “cleaner, at scale” might well temporarily trump “cleanest, but as yet unaffordable and unavailable”.

More about, er, those low cost natural gas molecules

By utilizing natural gas as its supply source, Intrexon’s proprietary bioconversion platform uses one of the most economical forms of carbon that is highly abundant and is the least costly form of energy other than coal. Moreover, unlike sugar, natural gas is a highly reduced source of carbon, allowing conversion of the entire feedstock to highly reduced products.

The Intrexon suite of tools and its work with methanotrophs

Intrexon has developed an advanced suite of tools that enable rapid manipulation of methanotrophs, the only organism found in nature that naturally consumes methane, including gene knock in/out, direct transformation/electroporation, and plasmid-based expression systems. Unlike many industrial hosts, methanotrophs are challenging to genetically engineer as the requisite tools are generally not available and detailed microbial regulatory and physiological information are lacking. Using its technology suite, Intrexon has generated methanotroph strains that are capable of upgrading natural gas to fuels and chemicals.

Reaction from Intrexon

Bob Walsh, Senior Vice President of Intrexon’s Energy Sector, commented, “Intrexon’s methane bioconversion platform holds the potential to transform the GTL industry by generating valuable fuels and chemicals at a fraction of the costs of more traditional conversion methods. We see natural gas being in ample supply for the foreseeable future, and our ability to upgrade this inexpensive carbon via our genome engineering capabilities will allow for a biocatalyst solution with a compelling economic return.”

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