Unstable oil prices have sent companies on a treasure hunt for the next big petrochemical replacement. One such pioneer is San Diego-based start-up Genomatica, which has developed a process that converts sugar (derived from sugar cane or beets) into commercial grade 1,4 butadeniol (BDO), an industrial plastic commonly used to make fibers like Spandex.
Genomatica's process uses genetically modified E.Coli bacteria to ferment sugar water into an ultra-pure form of BDO. According to Christophe Schilling, chief executive officer of Genomatica, it's the first 100% renewably sourced and purified BDO.
But just because Genomatica's process is sustainable doesn't mean it's expensive. At the current price of sugar and oil ($50 per barrel), the process is 25% cheaper than BDO produced from petrochemicals. If oil rises to $90 per barrel—as OPEC predicts—Genomatica's BDO will be the ultimate bargain.
Now that Genomatica's process has proven scalable, the company plans to build a demonstration facility next year at a cost of $10 to $15 million. If all goes well, the technology will be licensed to other manufacturers. The company stands to reap major rewards for its discovery—the worldwide market for BDO is $3 trillion per year.