Genomatica Develops Method to Replace Oil in Plastic-Making Process

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Genomatica, a San Diego-based sustainable chemical company, announced today that it has developed a process to make an important component of plastic without the use of petrochemicals.

The chemical, 1,4-butanediol (BDO), has an annual production value of over $4 billion in the automotive, textile, and consumer goods industries.

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Company scientists genetically engineered E. Coli bacteria to digest sugar and produce BDO. Genomatica’s announcement is a huge development for the plastics industry—currently, BDO is only produced using non-renewable petrochemical feedstocks based entirely on oil and natural gas.

Genomatica is still putting the final touches on their microorganism, but the company expects it to be cost-competitive with petrochemical-based BDO within a year. It will remain competitive even if oil drops to $50 a barrel.

Even if sugar prices rise, Genomatica has a plan to remain cost-competitive, as scientists could easily change their production process to use a cheaper feedstock within a 3 to 6 month span.

The company, which has already raised $24 million, expects to have a pilot plant running by the end of 2009.

As someone who has long been concerned about the impact that peak oil will have on plastic production, I’m heartened to see progress made in this field. If we can move away entirely from using petroleum in plastics, we will be able to wean ourselves off oil much more easily.

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