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Startup Turns Trash Into Chemical Cash

Genomatica, best known for figuring out how to make spandex from sugar cane and E.coli, has a new trick up its sleeve: producing chemicals from waste.

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Genomatica

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Genomatica, a startup best known for figuring out how to make spandex from sugar cane and E.coli, has a new trick up its sleeve: producing chemicals from trash. The startup, which relies on microbes to turn renewable feedstocks into major market chemicals, recently patented a method to use synthetic gas as a feedstock. Syngas is often less expensive than other renewable feedstocks–and it can be sourced from municipal solid waste and biomass, including switchgrass, wood waste, agricultural waste, and dairy waste.

Before Genomatica’s discovery, converting syngas to chemicals could only be done through expensive and energy-intensive techniques. Now Genomatica claims its process is on par with the cost of producing chemicals through traditional oil-based means.

Right now, Genomatica uses sugar as its primary feedstock. But that’s about to change. “We like the idea of feedstock flexibility,” says Steve Weiss, Genomatica’s head of marketing. “In different parts of world, local
economics dictate what’s more readily available. Our processes allow
cost advantages even with commonly available feedstocks.”

The syngas process isn’t quite ready for commercialization, but Genomatica has performed proof of concept work in the lab. “We will have additional announcements in the next handful of months,” Weiss says.

Not that Genomatica is moving slowly–the company also announced this week that it discovered how to produce intermediate chemicals used in nylon (adipic acid and caprolactam) from renewable feedstocks. And by 2013, Genomatica will be ready for commercial scale production of sustainable BDO, a chemical with a $4 billion yearly worldwide market that is commonly found in spandex.

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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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