Think of the world’s dependence on oil, and you probably think of cars. But much of the rest of our everyday lives is also made with oil, from the paint on our walls to our shoes, sofas, yoga pants, and even some foods. Petroleum-based industrial chemicals, a $3 billion global industry, are everywhere.
It’s possible to engineer the same chemicals from sugar, using microbes in a process like brewing beer. The problem, so far, is that sugar-based processes have been too expensive to replace oil, which is god-awfully cheap, thanks in no small part to generous government subsidies. But a Bay Area-based startup called Zymochem, part of a biotech incubator called IndieBio, thinks it has an answer.
“We decided to design a process that goes straight from sugar to chemical,” says Harshal Chokhawala, CEO of Zymochem. When companies brew bio-based chemicals now, a third of the sugar is lost along the way as carbon dioxide–microbes aren’t efficient factories. Zymochem sidesteps that problem with chemistry, using an enzyme that makes a carbon bond without having to rely on what the bugs do naturally.
Others have also tried to solve the problem, but other answers have been much more complicated, the company says. “You can actually rewire how the bug consumes glucose,” Chokhawala says. “But messing with that is a very hard challenge. What we’re proposing is a very different way, one that doesn’t require rewiring fundamental life processes.”
For some widely used industrial chemicals, the new process could make it cheaper to brew chemicals than to manufacture them with oil, even with current low oil prices. It also has some other major advantages. Adipic acid, a common chemical used to make things like nylon, is a source of nitrous oxide emissions–a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The new process eliminates those emissions. It can also use any type of sugar–not necessarily sugarcane or corn, which might compete with food crops, but also other types of biomass.
Ultimately, it could begin to replace some of the 191 million barrels of oil used in the U.S. each year to make plastics. “I think it will be a slow phase out once we start scaling,” says Chokhawala. “But all of chemical companies we’ve spoken with agree that bio-based production will be the basis for many chemicals in the future.”