The world we live in is built from petroleum. The paints on our walls, the carpets in our homes, the tires on our cars, the plastics for everyday consumer goods – these and many more products are made from chemicals that are mostly made from petroleum, creating a $3 trillion/yr industry. To fulfill our dependency on petroleum, we do crazy things like setting up oil rigs in the middle of the ocean and drilling several miles into the ocean floor! We’ve done these things because we have had no alternative to meet our needs. Not anymore!
Over the past decade, advances in engineering microorganisms have afforded us the opportunity to make the same chemicals that are traditionally made from petroleum. Instead of requiring raw materials buried deep within the earth, microbes can use abundant and renewable sources of carbon such as sugars during processes akin to brewing beer. Despite the numerous advantages, making chemicals this way at the industrial level is still rare. This is because it’s still more expensive than using petroleum for producing the chemicals. Although a few challenges need to be solved to usher in the era of renewable chemicals, a fundamental constraint that limits the economic competitiveness of using microbes is the loss of at least 33% of the carbon as carbon dioxide waste during the fermentation – think of this as the head on your beer. Because of this carbon loss, potential product is simply not made. In technical terms, the maximum achievable yields are 67%. As sugars are the most expensive component of a bioprocess, making the carbon dioxide waste translates to as much as 20% of total costs, which severely hampers the economics of the bioprocess and its competitiveness with petroleum-based production methods.
At ZymoChem, we are re-imagining the microbe, one that is designed to eliminate (or substantially reduce) carbon loss during the production of chemicals. To do this, we had to design a completely new biosynthetic pathway – one that doesn’t exist in nature – to make the chemicals. Each individual step of this pathway is designed to not lose carbon as carbon dioxide, enabling our biosynthetic pathway to retain all of the sugar’s carbon into the final chemical product. This carbon conservation allows our approach to have superior theoretical yields, up to 50% better than existing state-of-the-art technology! In turn, our technology has the potential to substantially lower production costs and drastically improve cost-competitiveness for making a variety of chemicals from renewable sources, even at today's oil prices.