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From sugar water to Spandex

Start-up Genomatica says it has a way to turn sugar into a pure version of the industrial chemical BDO at a lower cost than petroleum processes.

Someday, your Spandex tights and car dashboard may be made out of sugar cane rather than petroleum, if start-up Genomatica succeeds on its plans.

The San Diego-based start-up on Tuesday said that it has reached a technical milestone in converting sugar--derived from sugar cane or beets--into an industrial plastic called 1,4-butanediol, or BDO. It's a material that's appeals to the auto, apparel, and pharmaceutical industries for a variety of uses.

Coaxing little bugs to do some heavy lifting. Genomatica

Genomatica uses a genetically modified strain of E.coli bacteria to convert sugar water into BDO through fermentation. On Tuesday it said it demonstrated that it can remove impurities from that fermented brew to make a 99 percent concentrated version of BDO.

"We're using a process that will continue to allow the overall economics of making BDO from sugars to be cost advantaged," said Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling. "Not only do we purify it, but we purify it in a way that will allow us to use technologies known to scale."

Schilling said that at the current price of sugar and $50-per-barrel oil, the process is 25 percent cheaper than petroleum-based BDO. The cost advantage will attract customers, which are also interested in finding a plant feedstock that has a less volatile price than oil, he said.

The company plans to build a demonstration facility next year that will produce about one ton of BDO a day. A commercial-scale operation would 20 to 100 times larger.

Biological-based chemical manufacturing is poised for greater adoption in part because of volatile fossil fuel prices and because consumers are demanding products made from renewable materials, Schilling predicted. He noted that DuPont is using a fermentation-based process to make 1,3-propanediol (PDO), another industrial plastic.

If successful with its demonstration facility, Genomatica expects to license its technology to other chemical manufacturers.

Schilling said the company has plans for making other chemicals, using a suite of software modeling tools that speed up discovery of ways to manipulate microorganisms to make a desired product.