Sidestepping Oil With Sugar

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, which produces nearly a third of US' oil. PHOTO: Andrew Cullen

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, which produces nearly a third of US’ oil. PHOTO: Andrew Cullen

Oil is one of the non-renewable resources available on the planet, and its scarcity is inevitable if the supply does not meet the growing demand in the current scenario, and it may even lead to “resource wars” among states in the coming years. Oil prices are now near a six-year low, moving down today to about $44 a barrel. The fall has been precipitous: Only a year ago, crude oil was more than $100 a barrel. With the world of oil production being susceptible to the smallest of changes in the global market, it shows up as a space conducive to innovations that can potentially make it economical.

Petroleum-based industrial chemicals, a $3 billion global industry, are everywhere. It’s possible to engineer the same chemicals from sugar, using microbes in a process like brewing beer. The problem, so far, is that sugar-based processes have been too expensive to replace oil thanks in no small part to generous government subsidies. But a Bay Area-based startup called Zymochem, part of a biotech incubator called IndieBio, thinks it has an answer.

For some widely used industrial chemicals, the new process could make it cheaper to brew chemicals than to manufacture them with oil, even with current low oil prices. It also has some other major advantages. Adipic acid, a common chemical used to make things like nylon, is a source of nitrous oxide emissions—a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The new process eliminates those emissions. It can also use any type of sugar—not necessarily sugarcane or corn, which might compete with food crops, but also other types of biomass.

Read more here.

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