Sustainable chemical plants? New technologies make green chemistry a reality
The site of 15 year-old industrial accident in Texas is set to play a starring role in the development of the next generation of sustainable materials in the US.
The Stafford, Tex. plant, located in the sprawl of refineries and chemical plants surrounding Houston, received a new lease on life as the flagship facility for Solugen — a company looking to do nothing less than transform the entire chemicals industry.
Solugen is part of a vanguard of American companies that are charting a new course for the multi-trillion dollar chemicals business.
Their goal is to replace the petroleum, natural gas, and coal that provide most of the raw materials for chemicals production (which are used in most of the cleaning supplies, clothing, containers, coatings, cosmetics, flavors and fragrances that are part and parcel of industrial production) with sugars and plant-derived enzymes.
Together with companies like Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks*, which is developing a discovery tool and initial applications of genetically modified organisms, and a host of early stage companies, Solugen is laying the groundwork for commercializing bio-manufacturing at large scales.
Solugen’s co-founders, chief executive officer Gaurab Chakrabarti and chief technology officer, Sean Hunt, compare the new chemicals business to the semiconductor industry and liken themselves to Intel, the semiconductor manufacturing juggernaut.
But unlike Intel, there’s the potential for Solugen to position itself not just as an exclusive manufacturer of its own chemicals, but as a manufacturer for the entire chemicals industry.
“They were able to take design and process and actually bring it to scale,” said Chakrabarti of Intel’s innovations. “That’s what synthetic biology has been missing. Fundamentally it’s simply a matter of economics.”
Solugen designs and grows enzymes that can convert sugars into some of the chemical products that manufacturers need. Its products are now being used by businesses making everything from concrete to detergents, fertilizers, and even in water treatment
Other companies are working at the intersection of chemistry and biology as well making things like plastics, fabrics, detergents, softeners, sweeteners, paints, coatings and films
These startups, including Allozymes, Arzeda, Lygos, Mellizyme, Rubi Laboratories, and Twelve all have processes to identify novel enzymes or use those enzymes to manufacture new products. And Rubi and Twelve have the added benefits of using carbon dioxide as the input for their materials.
Replacing oil and gas in the chemicals cycle is critically important in the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build a more sustainable future.
Chemical manufacturing consumes more oil and gas than any other industry on the planet — and its the third most carbon intensive behind iron, steel, and cement.
“The chemicals industry represents a few percentage points of global greenhouse gas emissions. Zeroing out CO2 from the chemicals industry can’t happen fast enough,” Clay Dumas, a managing partner at LowerCarbon Capital and an investor in Solugen told CNBC.
So far, Solugen is the only company to successfully make its chemicals at the kinds of capacities global industry needs. Right now, it’s making 10,000 metric tons of chemicals at a 20,000 square foot facility.
Those numbers are huge compared to the other businesses working in the industry, but they’re dwarfed by the size of a typical chemical plant, which can produce hundreds of thousands of tons of chemicals.
Still, the speed at which Solugen has gone from a science experiment to an industrial facility is unprecedented.
“In 2016 I went to visit Solugen’s headquarters in Houston. They were sub-leasing a small part of a bigger lab and it was one of the sketchiest labs I’d seen, but the Solugen founders liked it because the rent was low,” s Solugen seed investor Seth Bannon, a founding partner with the investment firm Fifty Years, told TechCrunch in 2019. “Sean and Gaurab were incredibly impressive. They had their prototype reactor up and running and were already selling 100 percent of its capacity, so we invested.”
Unlocking the ability to mass produce bio-based chemicals is the game changer that the industry needs. And if Solugen can become the de-facto manufacturer for a number of different chemical processes developed by other businesses, it could accelerate the development of the green chemicals market in an incredibly significant way.
One of the keys to this approach is the ability to make enzymes instead of organisms. “When you’re trying to make a single chemical the other operations of the organism are getting in the way of targeted production,” said Chakrabarti. “That’s where the cell free becomes such an exciting opportunity.”
Green chemistry still has major hurdles to overcome to reach its scale, but Solugen’s bioforge reactor proves that there is a path to a more sustainable chemicals industry. And now’s the time to develop it.