Decarbonizing Chemicals: Overcoming Hurdles and Pioneering Sustainable Solutions in Green Chemistry

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At this year’s GC&E keynote speaker, Sean Hunt, CTO of Solugen, discusses challenges and potential for innovation relevant to decarbonizing the chemicals industry.

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Decarbonizing the chemical industry is a pressing task in the pursuit of counteracting climate change. Chemical engineers, such as Sean Hunt, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Solugen, are at the forefront of developing sustainable processes and products to reduce the industry's environmental footprint. In his recent keynote at the 2023 GC&E Conference, Hunt shed light on the hurdles faced by entrepreneurs in this space and the design considerations that are critical for Solugen's Bioforge technology.

Solugen, founded in 2016 by Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, commercializes greener synthetic pathways to produce bio-based chemicals using a novel technology that combines engineered enzymes with heterogeneous metal catalysts. The latter enables green chemicals manufacturing with a lower capital and operating expense, as well as lower CO2 intensity compared to fermentation-based or traditional petrochemical processes.

In 2022, Solugen commissioned a 10,000-ton-per-year plant for producing glucaric acid from glucose via a novel intermediate: glucodialdose. This process has a cradle-to-gate carbon footprint of -0.7 pounds of CO2 per pound of product, resulting in the mitigation of over 35,000 TPY of CO2 equivalents. Currently, Solugen, Inc. is developing manufacturing assets in Texas and Minnesota and has grown to over 200 employees across R&D, manufacturing, and commercialization.

Hunt emphasized that getting to this point has been incredibly difficult. Scaling up such green chemistry processes requires debt financing (raising capital from a bank), but validating and proving new technologies to get such financing is an arduous process that requires sustained results over several years.

“When we think about green chemistry and bringing it to scale, the only way is with debt financing,” says Hunt. “This is a lot of work just for one process. We have to do this for every molecule in the pipeline if we want to unlock debt financing, and debt financing is really the only way that green chemistry is going to get to scale.”

Solugen's focus is now on extending this paradigm to target new chemical intermediates that support an advanced bioeconomy. By exploring novel intermediates like glycolaldehyde and glyceraldehyde, Solugen aims to economically produce valuable end-products from renewable feedstocks, thus reducing reliance on fossil resources.

While the cost of renewable feedstocks pose challenges in achieving cost parity with petrochemistry, Hunt remains optimistic. By increasing process efficiency and continuing to innovate, green chemists can make substantial strides towards a competitive advanced bioeconomy.

“Green chemistry needs a lot of help, but I think we can do it,” says Hunt.