Siluria, Backed by Arch, Alloy, and Kleiner Perkins, Seeks Cheaper & Cleaner Plastics

8/19/10Follow @xconomy

Kristina Burow of Arch Venture Partners was itching to tell me something back in mid-June when we met at her office in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district. It involved a startup, had something to do with her chemistry training, and clearly had her excited.

The startup wasn’t quite ready to come out of stealth mode then, but it’s out there in a big way now.

The company is Siluria Technologies, and its work was first described in depth by John Markoff of The New York Times in late June. The idea is to create a new low-emissions technique for making ethylene—a key ingredient in plastics that is the most commonly used chemical intermediate product in the world. Siluria isn’t saying how much money it has raised to pursue this concept, but on a visit to the company’s Mission Bay lab last week, I learned it has gotten financial support from not just Arch, but also Alloy Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers—where technologist Bill Joy has gotten involved.

“We’re taking the most abundant feedstock in the world, natural gas, and turning it into the world’s largest chemical product, ethylene,” says Alex Tkachenko, Siluria’s president.

Burow, when I followed up with her, explained why she’s excited about the potential at Siluria. “”We have a terrific team and a very powerful platform to build novel catalysts with improved properties. Some of these catalysts have already shown utility in transforming methane into ethylene in a reaction that has long been considered a grand challenge of the petrochemical industry.”

Chemists at big companies have been pursuing various ways of improving the ethylene production process for about three decades, with little to show for it. The process today is the same one developed about 70 years ago. It’s called “steam cracking,” in which an oven is heated to 800 degrees centigrade or more, reaching such an extreme heat that it “cracks” the backbone of hydrocarbons into an intermediate product that gets turned into ethylene. This process, just like it sounds, uses up a huge amount of energy itself and creates no small amount of carbon emissions.

An estimated 140 million metric tons of ethylene are produced worldwide every year, Siluria estimates. Ethylene goes into everything from tires to paints to water bottles, cosmetics, eyeglasses, and the molded plastic casings that are in your computer. The market, Siluria figures, is worth about $160 billion a year.

“Ethylene is in everything you see in this room,” Tkachenko said during my visit to his company’s conference room.

Siluria’s idea is to come at this problem in a novel way. Instead of heating up hydrocarbons to crack them into an intermediate, it is attempting to take natural gas (methane) and run it through a new chemical process that converts the raw material into ethylene. The idea comes from the lab of MIT materials scientist Angela Belcher, who for years has been studying ways to make inorganic materials with novel surface structures that exhibit all the variety people can find in odd structures like diatoms and sea urchins.

The scientific concept, which the Times described in its piece, depends on … Next Page »

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