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Phytonix Turns Photosynthetic Bacteria Into Tiny Chemical Factories

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Ambitions for biologically sourced fuels bump up against the reality that making chemicals and fuels from organic material is still generally more expensive. One company is hoping to overcome that obstacle by tapping into the built-in way that plants make their own energy.

Plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food with oxygen as the byproduct. Research attempts to harness photosynthesis for industrial use, such as fuel and chemical production, have shown promise but remain unproven at commercial scale. Startup Phytonix aims to demonstrate it using its genetic engineering technology. The Asheville, NC, company has developed a way to engineer a type of photosynthetic bacteria, turning the microorganisms into tiny factories that churn out commercially useful chemicals while at the same time, reducing the environmental footprint of chemical production.

“It’s a solar technology, except we’re not creating electricity,” Phytonix founder and CEO Bruce Dannenberg says. “We’re producing solar chemicals and fuels.”

Advances in genetic engineering have turned up new ways to apply biological processes to health care, agriculture, and biofuel production. Phytonix employs cyanobacteria, a kind of bacteria that make their own energy through photosynthesis. Phytonix’s genetic modification could turn cyanobacteria into fuel producers. But Dannenberg notes that chemicals are more expensive than fuels, making chemicals the more valuable commodity. So Phytonix plans to use its technology to produce the chemical butanol.

If you’ve painted or varnished anything lately, there’s a good chance you used a product made with butanol. The chemical is used as a solvent in coatings and paints. Butanol, which is conventionally made from petroleum-derived chemicals, is also widely used as a component in producing other chemicals. The North American butanol market was $1.8 billion in 2013 and is projected to reach $2.3 billion by the end of 2018, according to MicroMarket Monitor. Most of the global butanol demand comes from the Asia-Pacific region, which represents 44.5 percent of the global butanol market. MicroMarket Monitor projects the Asia-Pacific butanol market will grow from $3.0 billion in 2013 to $4.3 billion by the end of 2018, driven by China’s chemicals demand.

Making Biobutanol

Though cyanobacteria are sometimes called “blue green algae” and they sustain themselves through photosynthesis, they are actually classified as bacteria. Cyanobacteria are ideal for genetic engineering because the one-celled organisms have no nucleus, making it relatively easy to access the DNA, Dannenberg explains. Cyanobacteria work well for chemical production because of their ability to store glycogen for food. Phytonix’s engineered cyanobacteria can produce butanol for months, powered by stored glycogen.

Phytonix plans a modular and scalable system consisting of soft-sided vessels called photobioreactors, where the cyanobacteria will grow. These vessels will be illuminated with natural sunlight and fed carbon dioxide, which could come from a power plant or an industrial operation. A separation process will harvest chemicals directly secreted by the bacteria. Dannenberg says that the cyanobacteria are engineered with a biosafety feature that keeps them from surviving outside of this enclosed environment.

Biologically produced butanol has been around for some time, says Jose Bruno-Barcena, a North Carolina State University professor of microbiology, whose research includes biobutanol production from … Next Page »

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