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Going to the Source: Delivering More Sustainable Products Through Greener Chemistry

How do we, the makers of materials, fibers, finished goods and packaging, ease the burden of our environmental footprint? By redesigning to use less material? Reducing energy use at our plants? All good, but I’d like to introduce an approach that has the potential to be both higher-impact and capable of keeping pace with the growing demand of first-world and developing economies: greening our materials "at the source," by starting with greener chemicals. 

The Chemical Industry 101: Everything Is a Value Chain

Understanding this approach starts from an observation about everyday products. Over 96% of manufactured goods globally  whether cellphone cases, athletic apparel or tires — are made using chemicals. And today, virtually all chemicals are made from oil and natural gas, consuming about 8% of fossil fuel production worldwide  carrying a heavy carbon footprint. These chemical building blocks are then used to make downstream, more complex chemicals or polymers, which are then used to make plastics and fibers, which are made into materials (like cellphone cases or nylon carpets)  becoming the value chain responsible for the industrial or consumer products that constantly touch our everyday lives. 

High Leverage by Changing the Materials at the Source

What’s really interesting is that the trillion-dollar chemical industry is built on a handful of products  only 30 or so high-volume chemicals, each with a market of billions to scores of billions of pounds per year. If you could notably improve the sustainability profile of even one of those chemicals, then all the products made using it downstream benefit from that improved profile, to the extent that they use it.

Our approach to reducing the footprint of manufactured chemicals is now becoming both real and economical, with fast-increasing commercial traction. Instead of using oil and gas, chemicals can be produced biologically (e.g. by fermentation) using renewable feedstocks, such as corn starches or agricultural waste  an inherently more sustainable approach. Genomatica develops the process technology for the production of those ‘core 30’ chemicals mentioned earlier, with our first chemical target expected in commercial production in 2013 and more to follow. We then license this technology around the world to chemical producers, who will build, own and operate plants to produce these chemicals and deliver more sustainable ingredients to the existing value chain. 

One example of the potential savings comes from our first targeted process, for the intermediate chemical butanediol (BDO), used in athletic apparel, running shoes, electronics and automotive applications. Initial analysis shows a potential reduction of up to 70% in greenhouse gas equivalents. If this new approach to production were applied to all three billion pounds per year, it could result in savings of eleven billion pounds of CO2 per year, which is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from almost one million passenger vehicles.

Requirements

There is an art to making this work. First, economics: This has been challenging but is now being surmounted. Bio-production of chemicals at scale shows potential savings in plant capital expenditures, operating expenses per pound and an ability to economically deploy smaller-scale, ‘right-sized’ plants that better meet regional needs.

The second issue is more subtle. For rapid market adoption, these new bio-processes need to produce the exact same chemicals, with no compromise on performance. This is not as easy as it sounds. Even chemicals with small levels of impurities  or very pure chemicals with different impurities than their conventional cousins  may perform differently downstream in the production of other products. 

Economics plus performance make a compelling case for manufacturers to embrace change, with the sustainability bonus being carried downstream to the benefit of everyone.

Roadmap: What To Expect

At the moment, integration and use of these new but exact same chemicals is in advanced qualification stage, prior to full-scale commercial production and use. But buyer beware: Those that proclaim greener chemicals need to show that it works, to your satisfaction or your suppliers'. In Genomatica’s case, we can state with assurance that the chemicals produced by our BDO process have been tested with great results by over a dozen companies to date. In other words, it works. 

How You Can Get Involved

Want to participate? If so, one place to start is analyzing your supply chain, looking upstream to identify the high-leverage chemical building blocks that affect your overall footprint. Demonstrating your interest  and your demand pull  will help make this transition happen faster. To benchmark your company, see the upcoming sustainability issues survey that we are doing with ICIS, an industry analyst, with results in early 2013.

Do you have an ingredient that you are eager to see ‘greenified’? Do you have a product that you would like to use for demonstrating a renewable value chain? If so, send your ideas to sustainableproducts@genomatica.com

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