The Danish startup Cellugy has developoed a drop-in, bio-based replacement for petrochemicals., produced with an assist from super-bacteria

Super-Bacteria Are Scaling Up To Attack The Petrochemical Industry

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Now that oil, gas, and coal are beginning to lose their grip on the global fuel landscape, the fossil energy industry will need to rely on plastics and other petrochemical markets. However, that door is about to slam shut. The green chemistry movement has been gathering steam since the early 2000s, and some important new bio-based breakthroughs will help pull the rug out from under the petrochemical industry.

The Bio-Based Revolution Is Coming For The Petrochemical Industry

Bio-based substitutes for plastic products are becoming more common, but plastic is just the tip of the petrochemical iceberg. Other fossil-derived substances percolate throughout the global economy.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that green chemistry innovators have plenty of opportunities to formulate more sustainable alternatives.

One particularly interesting example to cross the CleanTechnica radar this week is the Danish biotech startup Cellugy. The company has come up with a fermentation-based system for producing pure cellulose, marketed under the name EcoFLEXY. The product, offered in a dry powder or in a solution, is a bio-based replacement for the petrochemicals commonly found in lotions, and many other personal care products.

Cellulose powder is typically produced through a multi-step mechanical process. Cellugy’s fermentation system provides a bio-based alternative process that conserves energy and potentially saves money compared to other processes, too.

The Road To Petrochemical-Free Toiletries

Cellulose is the fibrous part of plants, and Cellugy has tasked bacteria to break it down. The bacteria metabolize plant sugars to produce cellulose in a crystalline form.

That sounds simple enough, and the process deploys fermentation equipment in common use today. Cellugy also notes that EcoFLEXY is a drop-in replacement for petrochemicals, enabling manufacturers to use their existing equipment.

However, the devil is in the details. Among the challenges is cultivating a super-bacteria that can quickly and efficiently convert plant sugars.

Another challenge is to scale up the process. Cellugy emphasizes that it has been helped along the way by incubators and other industry connections in the EU. The company also notes that stakeholders in the personal care industry have been clamoring for sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals.

In the latest news from Cellugy, earlier this week the company nailed down a seed funding round of €4,9M aimed at scaling up its dry cellulose production system. The jump is significant, from pilot-scale production of just a few kilos per year into the scale of several tons. Cellugy doesn’t have a precise estimate yet, but that probably means 2-3 tons to start with.

“The round was led by Germany’s ICIG Ventures and Denmark’s Unconventional Ventures, with new, U.S.-based investor Joyance Partners joining the round, along with existing investors PSV DeepTech, The Footprint Firm, and EIFO,” Cellugy reported in a press release earlier this week.

Follow The Money To Green Chemistry

In terms of the volume of petrochemicals to be replaced, the personal care industry is rather small compared to the fuel industry. However, as Cellugy notes, the demand for safe, sustainable products is creating new opportunities to make money.

“The global cosmetics market is booming and is expected to reach USD 415.29 billion by 2028,” Cellugy observes.”With a growing focus on health and sustainability, consumers are increasingly seeking bio-based alternatives.”

“The natural and organic cosmetics market is projected to surge at a CAGR of 9.76%, reaching USD 50.46 billion by 2027.”

One of those companies to dip a toe in the petrochemical-free market is International Chemical Investors Group, an industry powerhouse with sales of more than € 3.6 billion. They are eagerly anticipating scale-up for Cellugy with an assist from their ICIG Ventures branch.

The Investment Director at ICIG Ventures, Dr. Pelin Yilmaz, emphasizes that the investment represents a “strategic step” for the firm.

“Cellugy’s breakthrough in biofabricated cellulose technology not only aligns with our mission to support green technology but also promises to revolutionize the personal care industry and beyond,” Yilmaz explained in a press statement. “This sustainable alternative to petrochemicals, coupled with Cellugy’s efficient business model and potential for cross-industry application, presents a compelling combination.”

“We are particularly excited about the synergies in accompanying Cellugy in its scale-up journey,” he added.

More Headaches For Petrochemical Stakeholders, Eventually

Shaking off the grip of the petrochemical industry on the global economy has been a decades-long effort. The American Chemistry Society credits the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s with fostering a culture shift, following the publication of Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring. While the 1970s saw a focus on cleaning up polluted sites, by the 1980s chemists began turning their attention to eliminating toxic substances from the chemical industry supply chain in the first place.

Those 20th century efforts were a drop in the bucket. However, they laid the groundwork for attracting top talent — and money — to the green chemistry field.

ACS credits the University of Massachusetts with creating the first Green Chemistry Ph.D. program in the US, in 1997. “In that same year, Dr. Joe Breen, a retired 20-year staff member of the EPA, and Dr. Dennis Hjeresen co-founded the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) as an independent nonprofit dedicated to advancing green chemistry,” ACS also notes.

Things began moving along at a rapid clip just one year later with the publication of Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, in which co-authors Paul Anastas and John outlined 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

The momentum continued to build after the turn of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the green chemistry movement still has a lot of work cut out for it.

“After all of the research advancements in green chemistry and engineering, mainstream chemical businesses have not yet fully embraced the technology,” ACS observes.

“Today, more than 98% of all organic chemicals are still derived from petroleum,” they emphasize.

That could change as the next generation of chemists cycles through the school system. In contrast to the 1960s and ’70s, today’s students can learn about green chemistry from industry stakeholders with products on the market, so they already have an ear tuned to the potential for economic benefit as well as environmental benefit.

Just this week, for example, National Public Radio reported on a green chemistry educational program supported by the sustainable products firm ECOS, which gives young students a hands-on opportunity to create their own petrochemical-free household products.

If you have spotted other signs of the green chemistry movement in action, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Photo (cropped): The Danish startup Cellugy is determined to chase petrochemicals out of the supply chain with a drop-in, bio-based replacement from plant fiber, produced with an assist from super-bacteria (courtesy of Cellugy).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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