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Genomatica Turns Sugar And Trash Into Wearable Items

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Aired 3/10/11

A local biotech firm is working with a major trash company to turn landfill waste into green chemicals used to make everyday items.

As part of his doctoral research at UCSD, Christophe Schilling and a team of researchers developed computer modeling and simulation technology capable of engineering organisms to produce chemicals. The goal is to turn sugar and garbage into green chemicals for use in a wide variety of products, including clothes.

Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling explains how the 50 liter agitator works.
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Above: Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling explains how the 50 liter agitator works.

Sugar from agricultural waste being converted into Butanediol at Genomatica's lab.
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Above: Sugar from agricultural waste being converted into Butanediol at Genomatica's lab.

That technology is now the platform for his Sorrento Valley biotech firm Genomatica. The firm has partnered with Waste Management, one of the nation's largest trash-disposal companies.

Schilling and the company’s scientists explored several options to commercialize the technology which can be used in many medical and industrial biotech applications.

Deciding it could not head in different directions, the company spun off a separate entity to license the technology to pharmaceutical companies and focused on the industrial market.

The microbial organism Genomatica developed can convert sugars extracted from agricultural waste into chemicals used to make everyday items.

It recently signed an agreement with Waste Management, the nation’s largest trash company, to convert methane and solid waste from landfills into chemicals.

“The chemicals that we are targeting to produce literally find their way into products that enable and shape the world we live in," Schilling said. "It’s everything from plastics to paints on the wall, to fibers in carpets to the foam in the seats we are sitting in.

"These chemicals also go into making urethane for running shoes, spandex for athletic clothes; they end up in parts in your car, in electronics we use, in laptop computers."

Butanediol (BDO) is one such chemical. Four billion pounds of BDO are produced each year, from crude oil.

Genomatica’s technology can produce the same BDO from renewable sources, like agricultural or municipal waste, using 70 percent less energy and emitting about 60 percent less carbon dioxide, according to Schilling.

At the company’s lab, scientists are working on engineering the organism, which is then combined with synthesis gas that has been extracted from sugar, and placed in agitators. Eventually, BDO emerges from the process as a clear, sustainable chemical.

“So the organism literally eats the sugar and spits out the chemicals," Schilling explained. "In the case of going from trash to treasure, it takes the gas coming from the trash and converts it into a chemical. We are designing a living organism that can take these materials, eat them and spit out the chemicals we are interested in."

The company is working on applying this technology to methane from landfills, which can be captured and converted into synthesis gas, a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

It is also developing technology to take the solid waste itself and through gasification, make synthesis gas, which can be converted into chemicals. Schilling refers to this as the cradle-to-cradle use of resources.

“Waste Management is developing many different approaches to convert waste into syn gas and we are developing ways to turn syn gas into chemicals,” Schilling said.

He explained that the burgeoning green chemical industry has the power to transform, not by reinventing the wheel but by replacing polluting raw materials with sustainable alternatives that perform the same tasks.

“Rather than coming up with a new plastic or a new way to make a plastic bottle, we’re trying to come up with a way to make the same exact plastic today, but from a different starting point and that’s what makes it green. You can choose to make it from crude oil or from sugar. One’s green, the other’s not,” he said.

At a time when many biotech firms are struggling to raise money, Genomatica announced this month that it has secured $45 million from venture capialists in a third round of funding, bringing its investment pool to $84 million. Waste Management was one of the investors in this round. Venture capital groups that led each round include well-known names like Vantage Point and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

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