An Example Of Innovation 2.026 May, 2016 / Articles
I like to write about examples of innovation because such stories are behind many of the things we enjoy in modern life. The pace of innovation today is extraordinary, but it is definitely not unique to our era. It has been central to human civilization from the start. I recently learned about an example of a bio-materials innovation in England 100 years ago. It had to do with a strategic need for certain chemicals during WWI. Today there is a new company called Green Biologics which is employing the latest tools of biotechnology to engineer an improved means of producing those same bio-based chemicals. It is a great example of Innovation 2.0.
The products in question here have the very chemical-sounding names of n-butanol and acetone, but these are compounds that occur widely in nature. Acetone is produced by most plants and animals including humans. You might be most familiar with it as a solvent used in nail polish remover. n-Butanol is less familiar but a simple derivative (butyl-acetate) is an important flavor in many fruits such as apples (it is particularly prevalent in the Red Delicious apple) and is a common added flavorant in food ingredients.
More importantly, both n-butanol and acetone are important starting materials to make more complex materials like plastics, coatings, paints, inks, adhesives, safety glass, orthopedic and cosmetic implants (for some specific examples see the end of the post).
For decades, acetone and n-butanol have been made almost exclusively from petrochemicals because that was the cheapest source. However, the way these chemicals were first made in the early 1900s was biologically from renewable carbon sources. The driving need was to have acetone to turn into “cordite” for use as “smokeless gun powder.” In the trench warfare of World War I, it was very important to make it hard for the enemy to spot the sources of rifle and cannon fire.
Unfortunately, the Allies lacked access to a sufficient supply of acetone at that time. A Russian immigrant named Chaim Weizman, who was a chemist and lecturer at the University of Manchester, developed the “ABE process” in 1916. It was a fermentation of the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum yielding acetone, n-butanol and ethanol (US Patent 1,315,585). The process came to represent a major contribution to the allied cause. That very same Chaim Weizman later went on to become the founder of the Weizman Institute and the first president of Israel.
Now, 100+ years after Weizman’s innovation, Green Biologics has further innovated the system for producing bio-based acetone and n-butanol. This is desirable for downstream customers wanting to claim the use of “green” materials, but the bio-sourced versions often have other advantages in terms of the purity. They are also becoming cost-competitive with oil-based sources. For its part, Green Biologics has used modern genetic engineering methods to optimize their Clostridium strains including the use of their own version of the powerful CRISPR gene-editing tool which Green Biologics calls CLEAVE™. They have also developed a “modified batch system” of fermentation that strips out the butanol rich broth from the fermenter and extends the productivity to over 4 times that of standard batch reactions. The end result is longer, more efficient, and more cost competitive production runs.
Green Biologics’ first commercial scale plant is going to be in an existing 21MGPY corn ethanol facility in Little Falls, Minnesota. The plant was originally built with farmer investment in the bioethanol business. With the current, competitive nature of the ethanol market, and the under sized capacity of the plant, the cooperative decided to sell the plant to Green Biologics in 2013 in a creative financing deal that closed in December 2014. Around 35% of the farmers rolled their investment into the new n-butanol plant with Green Biologics.
As I’ve written before, the farming community has a legitimate interest in diversifying end-use options for their crop, and green-chemistry like this is an even more attractive option than bioethanol. Ultimately, if the market for Green Biologics’ products grow, they will have the option of tapping into other bio-based feed-stocks such as woody biomass, bagasse, palm waste etc.
The ABE process which Weismann innovated 100 years ago certainly has an interesting history. It is now entering a chapter 2.0.