“What we really need is a biological alternative to industry.” This was the comment that Stephen del Cardayre remembers Berkeley Professor Joe Neilands making to him one day over lunch many years ago. Although he can’t remember the exact quote, the idea stuck in his head and motivated the young biochemist.
Today Stephen is the VP of Research and Development for LS9, a company poised to bring biochemicals and biofuels to market using an innovative approach based on one-step biological catalysis. “The technology is based on a simple process,” Stephen says. After listening to the extensive amount of research that went into creating this technology—research that garnered LS9 the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2010—it would be fair to say that it’s the kind of simplicity that’s on the other side of complexity, which is exactly what makes it so powerful.
The idea is this: engineer bacteria so that when they consume their natural food—carbohydrates, a.k.a sugar—they produce a specific product which is released from their cells and floats to the surface as an oil layer that can easily be removed through centrifugation. Change the bacteria to a differently engineered set, and using the same equipment and the same process, you end up with a different industrial product. It’s a fantastically interchangeable system.
To begin with, the company plans to produce “drop in” products—products that are straight alternatives to those produced in traditional ways. “These products will compete primarily on economic terms,” emphasizes Stephen. It’s an important point. There is a common misperception that sustainable products and processes are inherently more expensive—and yet green chemistry principles, with their focus on efficiency and waste reduction, are most commonly embraced by industry because inspire cost saving innovations.
For example, the existing production of fatty alcohols, an ingredient in surfactants—detergents, dispersants, foaming agents, and the like—is commercially produced from petrochemicals, palm kernel and coconut oil. During production, byproducts are generated that are less desirable in the marketplace, creating inefficiencies. Through LS9’s process, engineered bacteria consume sugars and produce the exact fatty alcohol chain of interest, with few byproducts, saving on production costs.
LS9 recently opened a demonstration facility in Florida to produce pre-commercial batches big enough for commercial testing and to optimize large scale production. On Sept 10th, the company announced that its first production cycle of fatty alcohol at the 135,000 liter scale was successful and met their technical goals. After additional test runs of fatty alcohol, the Florida plant will go on to test diesel fuel and ester chemical production.
The feedstock LS9’s microbes eat is sugar—any kind of sugar will do—but the cheapest sugar available today is cane syrup, and the biggest supplier is Brazil, which is why LS9 plans to open their first commercial plant in Brazil in 2014. A ten year study of sugar cane prices show that while prices go up and down, 85% of the time the economic model is favorable—meaning LS9 could produce products as cheap as or cheaper than those produced traditionally. There are additional advantages too—the technology opens the door for the possibility of creating higher quality products with tailored features in the future. And as second generation feedstocks come on line, such as sugars derived from the bagasse, waste glycerol from biodiesel production, and molasses, significant additional savings will result.
From the initial spark that afternoon in Berkeley, to a biotech business that does indeed look like a biological alternative to industry, Stephen and the other scientists on the team have put in years and years of research. It’s no wonder that winning the PGCCA award in 2010 “had a big moral effect on the team.” As a prestigious and peer-reviewed evaluation, the PGGCA award is something that any group of people who are, as Stephen says, “all motivated to develop technology that has a positive impact on the planet” can be “extremely proud of.” Examples like these—and there are many others—give the younger generations a roadmap to visualize how green chemistry research can be put into action and have a tangible positive results.
This article was originally published in “The Nexus” newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you have an ACS ID, login to your email preferences and select “The Nexus” to subscribe.
To read other posts, go to Green Chemistry: The Nexus Blog home.