Plastic is the new black.
Zeachem, which has devised a somewhat unusual technique for converting wood scraps and cellulosic material into fuel and other substances, has bred its organisms to crank out a chemical that's a precursor to propylene, a major ingredient in packaging and plastics. The second bug will effectively give the company two product lines: ethanol (and ethanol precursors) that will get sold to the fuel market and chemicals for specific applications.
"Fuel is an infinite pool," said CEO Jim Imbler in an interview. "In chemicals we will work with specific players."
The company also announced that it has broken ground on a prototype manufacturing facility. The facility is smaller than the 1.5 million gallon a year facility Zeachem had earlier said it would build. It will produce ethanol and an ethanol precursor. (The plastic precursor molecules have three carbons versus two) The good news is that it is actually building it. The factory will be open in 2010. Eventually, it hopes to open 25 to 50 million gallon a year plants. Many of the early plants will be opened with specific partners who will absorb the output.
Chemistry and that ever-popular chemical substance plastic are increasingly drawing the attention of entrepreneurs and investors. Why? As Imbler pointed out, fuel is somewhat generic and distributors can source it from a wide range of suppliers. Large chemical companies, by contrast, can have very specific requirements: A startup that can provide it with industrial barrels of a tightly defined material could potentially win a long-term customer.
Conceivably, the green chemistry industry could operate like biotech where star startups get snapped up by large industrial conglomerates for healthy premium. Interestingly, a few green chemistry startups like Genomatica and Wildcat Discovery Technologies grew out of the biotech industry. Genomatica, which once made modeling software for biotech, now concentrates on producing chemicals for green versions of BDO (in Spandex) and methyl ethyl keytone. Wildcat was founded by Pete Schultz, a star bio professor at UC San Diego and a co-founder of Symyx, Syrrx, Kalypsys, Phenomix, Ilypsa, and Ambrx and other things with X in their name.
Green plastic additionally can help chemical manufacturers alleviate the risk of fluctuating oil prices, Imbler said. Some might even be willing to a pay a green premium if it reduces risks surrounding oil prices and carbon taxes and hence lowers the total cost of production. Other names to look for in plastic: Axion International (plastic building materials), Bioplastech (recyclable plastic) and Envion (fuel from old bottles).
Like Coskata, Zeachem combines thermochemical and biological processes to make it substances. How does it work? After separating plant matter into cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, Zeachem employs a microbe found in the guts of termites to convert cellulose and hemicellulose – which can account for 61 percent of the material in wood – into acetic acid, the signature ingredient of vinegar, rather than alcohol.
"You name it, it eats it," said Imbler of the company's organism.
The conversion into acetic acid does not give off carbon dioxide, leaving more carbon in the fuel. Meanwhile, the company cooks the lignin to extract hydrogen. The hydrogen is subsequently combined with the acetic acid to produce ethanol. (Zeachem can also opt to leave the hydrogen off and sell an ethanol precursor and just cook the lignin as fuel.)
Zeachem says that its process – which combines biological and thermochemical processes –will allow it to squeeze 135 gallons of fuel from a bone dry ton of vegetable matter. Most other cellulosic makers wallow around the 100-gallon mark.
See how it is done in this video.