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Genomatica Figured Out How to Make Spandex From Sugar Cane

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. 

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bdo

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. 

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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.

[Genomatica via CNET]

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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