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Ethanol plants could produce “green chemicals”

February 26, 2009
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“Green chemicals” startup Genomatica has bioengineered a petroleum-free version of a widely used industrial solvent that can be produced in shuttered ethanol plants. The chemical, methyl ethyl ketone, or MEK, is used as a solvent in paint and other coatings. Genomatic says it has bioengineered a microbe that ingests sugar and water and produces MEK without the toxic byproducts and environmental risks that come from making petroleum-based industrial chemicals. The San Diego company last year produced its first green chemical in the lab, 1,4-butanediol, or BDO, which is a raw material found in everything from skateboard wheels to spandex. Genomatica plans to license its bio-chemicals to industrial producers. When it came time to develop its next product, the company targeted a chemical that could be produced by existing industrial plants. Why ethanol? The financial crisis has left a couple dozen ethanol plants idle. Company officials determined that existing ethanol plans could easily be repurposed to produce MEK. That’s potentially a win-win situation: Capital costs are kept to a minimum as new chemical factories don’t have to be built, while ethanol producers get a new lease on the life of their plants. So far, bio-MEK has only been produced in small batches in Genomatica’s lab. Meanwhile, the company is about to embark on a fundraising round to finance the construction of a demonstration plant in Southern California to produce BDO.
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