Our vehicles are made from, and run on, petroleum. We fill up our tanks with gasoline. The plastics inside our cars are extracted from petrochemicals. The tires are molded from isoprene, an oil-derived chemical for synthetic rubber. There is a lot of oil in every car. As advanced biofuels have failed to arrive at most filling stations, and may take decades longer, every little bit of oil we can remove is worth it. Today, tire makers are chasing down a future with fewer fossil fuels by making rubber tires with bacteria and natural materials.
Amyris, a synthetic-biology company in Emeryville, California, recently announced it’s working with French tire manufacturer Michelin to produce biological isoprene, while California-based Genencor is teaming up Goodyear to do the same. They’re not alone.
Sumitomo Rubber Industries has been working on the problem for years, and has already created a 97% oil-free tire with materials such as vegetable oils, silica, chemically altered natural rubber, and plant fibers while improving its performance; it hopes to release a petrochemical-free tire by 2013.
Yet these are all just first steps. Synthetic biological manufacturing, which got its start in medicine and biofuels, has had to diversify rapidly to survive and find new markets. Today, biologically derived chemicals are worth about $1 billion, yet account for just 1% to 2% of the overall chemicals market, estimated the engineering and consulting firm Biodesic in a 2011 report. It’s a small start for what promises to be a huge transformation of the way we make, well, almost anything.
“We have built our modern world on access to those petrochemicals,” says Rob Carlson, a principal at Biodesic, in Nature News. “So replacing them is at least important as replacing petroleum with biofuels.”