Scientists at Genomatica Inc. recently announced that they have developed strains of bacteria that are able to produce plastic without the use of oil or natural gas. The sustainable process utilizes little more than sugar and water to produce butanediol (BDO), which can be manufactured into everything from plastics and fibers to pharmaceuticals. Genomatica estimates that within a year the energy-efficient process will cost less than current hydrocarbon-based processes – a revolutionary development since close to 3 billion pounds of BDO manufactured each year.
Currently BDO is made exclusively with oil and natural gas, and its production is very energy-intensive. Utilizing sugar and E. Coli to create the chemical allows the production process to be conducted under normal pressure and temperatures, which drastically cuts it energy use: “By using advanced computational modeling and evolution‐based methods to rapidly engineer living organisms, Genomatica can produce valuable chemicals from renewable feedstocks at low cost.”
The bacteria-grown plastic can be produced in large fermentation tanks in a manner similar the way that algae is being used to produce biofuels, and the company plans on using sugars that are non-competitive with the food industry to steer clear of some of the conflicts that have been brought up with ethanol-based fuels.