Palo Alto, Calif.--The next wave of automotive suppliers will come from a Petri dish.
Genencor, the industrial enzyme specialist, has engineered a microorganism that can produce a version of isoprene that is chemically identical to the 1.7 billion pounds of isoprene created annually with fossil fuels. This so-called BioIsoprene can then be converted into jet fuel, diesel, polymers or synthetic rubber through additional chemical processes.
The product came about, in fact, after Goodyear approached Genencor about producing a sustainable version of the chemical. Earlier this year, Goodyear made a few experimental tires with the material with a tread pattern that looks like leaves. Genencor hopes to next build a pilot plant next year.
"We've shown we can make a monomer that works in the polymerization process," said Richard LaDuca, Senior Director Business Development at Genencor, during a tour of the company's development labs in Palo Alto. From the outside, it looks like a typical Silicon Valley office building. Inside, steel fermentation tanks and plumbing fill several rooms.
But will BioIsoprene cost more, the fate of many green chemicals? Maybe not. As an added bonus, the microorganisms produce isoprene as a gas, which Genencor can capture as it bubbles out of a fermentation liquor. The company has to convert it to a liquid to sell it, but the early gas phase eliminates what can be costly liquid separation techniques -- as well as the capital that goes along with the process needed to harvest it.
Welcome to a new phase in the history of industrial microbiology. To date, most microbe-centric companies have concentrated on pharmaceuticals.
Genencor, Novozymes and a host of startups, by contrast, have tinkered with the metabolic pathways of microorganisms to produce binders for detergents, food additives or industrial processes. Genencor, for instance, created an enzyme that effectively wears out fabric: some textile makers have adopted it to create stone-washed fabrics, which in the past were literally tossed into a washing machine with smooth rocks before going out to store shelves.
Interestingly, Novozymes hails from Denmark, and Genencor, a JV with its origins in Kodak, Dow Corning and Genentech, is owned now by Danisco. Thus, you can count industrial microbiology as another market -- along with wind, biomass, water systems and electronic transportation -- with a significant Danish presence. LaDuca will discuss the strategy and opportunity at Nordic Green II taking place April 27 and 28 in Menlo Park, Calif.
The food and detergent markets tend to revolve around fairly customer-specific products, LaDuca noted. The customers even participate in the enzyme design cycle. Isoprene is a pure commodity. The volumes are larger, but the prices and margins can fluctuate. To counter some of these issues, Genencor will take a hybrid approach to the market. It will optimize its microorganisms to produce a single chemical, namely, BioIsoprene. Then it will turn to conventional chemistry industry processes which are already highly adapted for mass manufacturing.
Technically, chemistry industry processes are invariably more efficient for producing isoprene than fermentation in huge volume, as well. But biological production will help eliminate the price fluctuations in commodity pricing now bedeviling large industrialists -- oil prices are historically more volatile than the price of corn starch. The company also produces an enzyme, Accellerase, for breaking down raw materials for ethanol production.
A biological source for the chemical will also give manufacturers an ability to help meet supply chain and carbon mandates from governments and private businesses. Wal-Mart, for instance, recently unfurled an initiative with the Environmental Defense Fund to eliminate 20 million metric tons from its supply chain annually by 2015. The initiative is expected to impact 30,000 factories in China alone. Besides biological help, others are looking at ways of recycling rubber.
Industrial microbiology is not easy. Cambrios, one of the first startups in the area, has switched from trying to produce biologically-generated industrial chemicals to ones made through the tried-and-true techniques of exotic combinations of minerals at high temperatures.
Genencor hopes to use its industry heft to avoid a similar situation. Worldwide, the company has nine manufacturing plants and 5 million liters worth of fermentation capacity. A number of staff engineers and scientists also specialize in getting cells to produce more desired fluids more rapidly or extracting it when produced. Another side note: although E. coli has long been the workhorse of biotech, companies also work with yeasts and filamentous fungi.
How these different products get to market will vary. The company could ship raw BioIsoprene or establish joint ventures for finished or semi-finished products. Revenue from Genencor comes to around $800 million a year.
"One of our core competencies is the design and optimization of the cell factory," LaDuca said. "We make microorganisms to do work for us."