When we think of biotechnology, it’s easy to think just about pharmaceuticals. Even the broader term ‘bioeconomy’ may only bring to mind things like agriculture, forestry, and food.
But the bioeconomy is best thought of as turning biomass into business, plants into products. What we call the bioeconomy today made up most of our economy before the 20th century, when petrochemistry and synthetic chemistry gave rise to a revolutionary material that became ubiquitous worldwide: plastics.
In the 21st century, consumers are increasingly demanding products that reflect their more sustainable values and lifestyles. Chemistry is giving way to synthetic biology, and engineered organisms—using the same kind of fermentation we use to make wine, bread, or kombucha—can now make the chemical building blocks for shoes, cars, and carpets.
There is just one question: Which producers will have the foresight to lead this biomanufacturing revolution?
Recently, a bioengineering company called Genomatica reached a milestone that epitomizes this shift from fossil fuels to biology. Genomatica announced it had made a ton of the chemical building block that industry relies on to make nylon-6—using a renewable fermentation approach. Here’s why that matters.
Why does bio-nylon matter?
First, it’s an economic opportunity. The nylon industry is worth $10 billion globally. That’s a huge potential market to tap into. Nylon became famous in the 1940s as a textile fiber in stockings. Today, it is found in everything from clothes to packaging.
Second, it’s an environmental necessity. As with most plastic production today, nylon-6 usually starts with crude oil. In this case, the molecule caprolactam is refined from crude oil and made into nylon. Every year, the world makes five million tons of nylon-6, which results in an estimated 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Producing nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Manufacturing nylon also requires large amounts of water and energy, further contributing to environmental degradation and global warming.
Using a synthetic biology approach, Genomatica engineered microorganisms to ferment plant sugars to produce caprolactam, and therefore nylon, in a 100% renewable way. Christopher Schilling, CEO of Genomatica, thinks this is good for business and our planet.
“There’s this idea that in order to be sustainable, you’ve got to find some totally novel material,” said Schilling. But by producing the very same chemical precursor that industry would normally get from fossil fuels, he believes Genomatica can have a much bigger, more rapid impact on sustainability. “As this product continues to scale, and the economics become more obvious, companies will begin to ask themselves: why would we source it any other way?”
Name brands are going bio-based
Genomatica wants to deliver sustainable nylon to brands like H&M, Vaude, and Carvico via its partnership with Aquafil, one of the largest producers of nylon in the world. Aquafil’s ECONYL brand of nylon takes old fishing nets, textile scraps, and other forms of nylon waste and transforms them into new yarn that’s as good as virgin raw material. Aquafil sees this regeneration process as a new opportunity for the fashion and furniture industries, and a way to protect the environment.
“It was important to us to establish a real connection point with consumer brands,” said Schilling. As a technology innovator, Genomatica felt that the success of the product depended on being accepted at all points in the value chain. Aquafil was the best partner for that, “where we could share a great story that consumer brands could latch on to and ultimately champion.”
Schilling says that the initial one-ton production of the chemical precursor is a small but important step, and its next goal is to reach commercial-scale levels of 30,000-100,000 tons per year.
Bio-nylon’s sustainable forerunners
“One of the things that’s really differentiated Genomatica is our ability to scale, to know how to take something all the way from ideation to commercial realization,” says Schilling.
Nylon is Genomatica’s third big synthetic biology product to come to market, and its previous experience in this space is sure to help accelerate the transition from the lab bench to the marketplace.
Since 2016, Italian bioplastics company Novamont has been producing the bio-BDO at a rate of 30,000 tons per year. NOVAMONT / GENOMATICA
Genomatica’s first big success was with 1,4-butanediol, known more colloquially as BDO. This chemical is used to make plastics, elastic fibers, and polyurethanes, and it’s found in everything from plastic bags to spandex. The world produces about 2.5 million metric tons of BDO every year, and at about US$2,000 per ton, the market is in the billions.
In 2012, Genomatica delivered a chemical engineering breakthrough by producing bio-based BDO with a cost-competitive fermentation process at a commercial scale. Bio-BDO is 100% bio-based and biodegradable, and can be found in athletic apparel, running shoes, electronics, and automotive applications.
A second big success came with a chemical named 1,3-butylene glycol. Few realize it, but many of our everyday personal care and beauty products are derived from crude oil. In early 2019, Genomatica announced the first commercial production of Brontide—its brand name of the chemical—made with natural plant-based sugars. As more and more of us strive to choose products that are in line with our personal values, those made with Brontide rather than fossil fuel derivatives offer consumers a choice that is kinder to the environment.
Taken together, there are now bio-based alternatives for the chemicals used to make everything from fuels to electronics, from shoes to cosmetics. It’s a reminder of just how dependent we are on petrochemicals in our everyday lives.
Are bio-based drop-in chemicals inevitable?
“On the performance side, our first goal is to make sure that the material delivers exactly the same performance features as you would get from conventionally or petroleum sourced nylon. That’s the same thing we did in BDO and butylene glycol,” explains Schilling. He adds, “When you have these large existing markets, you have to make sure you hit the spec to deliver the same quality.”
Bio-based alternatives can offer another advantage over their fossil-based cousins: in some cases, they perform better. With butylene glycol, for example, heavy metals are a catalyst used in processing the ingredient from crude oil. In the final product, trace amounts of heavy metals remain. But with biomanufacturing, no catalysts are needed and there’s no chemical processing, says Schilling. “There are also different purity levels that we’re able to hit very effectively,” he says.
The argument for sustainable, bio-based approaches to material precursors is a strong one. Through relatively simple fermentation processes, biology has shown time and again that it can make whatever we can pump out of the ground, offering precision, renewable production of key compounds. Bio-based caprolactam is another proof point.
The sticking point, as ever, is industry adoption. Industry leaders across the value chain need to seek out and support the scaling of sustainable and renewable bio-based components to speed their integration into a diverse array of end-products. Consumers want them, manufacturers can use them, and most importantly, the planet needs them.
Thank you to David Kirk and Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.2