Low-Cost Biological Solution for Reducing Carbon Pollution in Chemical Manufacturing

EPA Contract Number: EPD15022
Title: Low-Cost Biological Solution for Reducing Carbon Pollution in Chemical Manufacturing
Investigators: Greenfield, Derek
Small Business: Industrial Microbes, Inc.
EPA Contact: Manager, SBIR Program
Phase: I
Project Period: September 1, 2015 through February 29, 2016
Project Amount: $100,000
RFA: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) - Phase I (2015) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) , SBIR - Air and Climate


Project Summary. Industrial Microbes is developing a green fermentation platform to replace carbon-emitting petrochemical processes with new methods that build chemicals out of carbon dioxide and methane. By using these raw materials and a new process, the company will be able to produce valuable chemicals for half the current production cost. This advantage means that Industrial Microbes’ technology will make an impact in decreasing carbon pollution for several established chemical markets. This technology reduces carbon dioxide emissions six-fold on a lifecycle basis compared to the current petrochemical method.
Chemical production is a major source of carbon pollution, responsible for 18 percent of direct industrial emissions. New methods for chemical production must be part of the overall strategy for reducing carbon pollution in America. Fermentation using engineered microbes is a green technology that could replace many petrochemical processes. Industrial Microbes proposes a fermentation solution to produce a four-carbon (C4) chemical used to manufacture plastics, spandex fibers and polyurethanes for a $6 billion market. A techno-economic model shows the company’s method will result in 55 percent lower costs; raw material cost typically dominates chemical production cost, and methane is less than one-third the price of traditional raw materials, such as petroleum or sugar.
Industrial Microbes’ innovation is an engineered yeast microbe that will consume carbon dioxide and methane and produce C4 chemicals. The chemical conversion occurs inside living yeast cells by engineered enzyme pathways, in a process similar to brewing beer. Industrial Microbes’ team is composed of experts in engineering these metabolic enzyme pathways. The overall process has far lower energy requirements and fewer byproducts compared to traditional chemistry.
Environmental Benefit. The current production of C4 chemicals from petroleum emits significant carbon pollution in a wasteful, multi-step synthesis process. In contrast, Industrial Microbes’ process actually consumes carbon dioxide without creating pollution upstream or downstream. The company performed a well-to-gate life cycle analysis, which shows that this process reduces carbon dioxide emissions six-fold compared to the baseline petrochemical process. Industrial Microbes is able to significantly reduce carbon pollution because its process includes direct carbon dioxide fixation and more efficient unit operations. For example, fermentation avoids the high-temperature and high-pressure chemical catalysis conditions that require significant energy. The only byproducts of fermentation are water and biomass, and the yeast biomass has an existing market as a valuable animal feed. Further environmental benefits will result from using stranded natural gas or renewable biogas, from landfills or anaerobic digesters, as raw materials in this process. One ton of product made using Industrial Microbes’ scaled process will prevent 3.5 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere, via direct carbon fixation plus emission avoidance from the current polluting process. This has the potential to prevent up to 7 million tons of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to removing 1.5 million passenger cars from the road.
Market. Industrial Microbes will manufacture C4 chemicals for existing markets. In this SBIR proposal, Industrial Microbes describes production of a specific C4 chemical used to make synthetic fibers and plastics. The market is $6 billion annually, with customers including chemical companies and material manufacturers. Potential customers, partners and investors consist of companies that desire a less expensive and green replacement chemical with low price volatility. These include both existing C4 chemical manufacturers, as well as downstream users of the product.
Feasibility. This SBIR proposal will dramatically expand the reach and environmental benefits of Industrial Microbes’ low-carbon platform technology for producing chemicals from methane and carbon dioxide. This proposal leverages existing funded research in the company’s laboratory, and thus enables the EPA to achieve a larger impact with modest funding. The result of this Phase I research will be an engineered microbe with the ability to produce a high-value chemical from carbon dioxide and methane. Strain engineering will utilize modern biotechnological techniques in synthetic biology, metabolic engineering and directed evolution.
Advantages. Industrial Microbes’ competitive advantage is the ability to produce an identical chemical at significantly lower cost, because the company’s process consumes inexpensive raw materials at high efficiency. In contrast, competitors use more expensive feedstocks, including sugar and petroleum. Industrial Microbes’ capital costs are driven by fermentation and purification equipment, and these costs are similar to or lower than the company’s competition.

Supplemental Keywords:

fermentation, petrochemicals, carbon dioxide, methane, chemical production, industrial emissions, microbes, green technology, yeast, fermentation, C4 chemical, air and climate, industrial process pollution reductions

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final Report
  • SBIR Phase II:

    Low-Cost Biological Solution for Reducing Carbon Pollution in Chemical Manufacturing