What if you could transform waste greenhouse gases into useful products? This is the promise of gas fermentation, a technology that could be a key tool toward circularizing the economy.
Gas fermentation, in which microorganisms convert waste gases into commodity chemicals, is the foundation of biotechnology startup Industrial Microbes. Specifically, the company focuses on engineering microorganisms to convert methane and ethane, two abundant greenhouse gases, into new materials. By using these inexpensive and widely available waste gases, many different materials can be manufactured in a cheaper and more sustainable way.
Now, a new collaboration between the Agile BioFoundry and Industrial Microbes aims to create predictive statistical models that will inform how to scale up this technology.
“Rather than having to learn how to build the best predictive model by ourselves, this collaboration allows us to work with the world experts at the Agile BioFoundry who specialize in machine learning models,” said Elizabeth Clarke, founder and CTO of Industrial Microbes.
The project will conduct multiple scales of experiments and collect data that will help the teams create a predictive model. The model will identify productivity improvements and forecast the performance of gas fermentation processes that use Industrial Microbes’ E. coli strain to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid, or 3HP.
3HP is a versatile molecule currently made from petroleum. It can be turned into acrylic acid and several other products — such as paints, coatings, diapers, carbon fiber and hard plastics.
“No one has really succeeded in building a bioprocess for producing 3HP that can be cost competitive with the traditional, petrochemical routes,” said Noah Helman, founder and Chief Product Officer of Industrial Microbes. “Our cost model shows we can do it at significantly lower costs while reducing the carbon footprint.”
The goal of this project is to use the predictive models to get to a solution faster, with less trial and error.
“We’ll be able to quickly analyze all the data we’re gathering and zero in on the fastest path to what will eventually be the solution,” Helman said.
The teams aim to make the data and resources from this project publicly available to benefit the biomanufacturing community at large.
“We’re excited about the fact that the Agile BioFoundry is eager to make this information available, not just to academics, but to other companies,” Clarke said.
This collaboration will change the conversation around the feasibility of Industrial Microbes’ gas fermentation platform, Helman said.
“Some potential corporate partners have come to us with skepticism about whether gas fermentation is really going to work at scale,” he said. “To come back and show the data we collected, and to say we did this groundbreaking analytical program that’s going to help us scale up not only 3HP, but all the other molecules our platform can make — that will be a really big step forward.”
This collaboration between the Agile BioFoundry and industry is one of six projects totaling over $5 million announced this year by the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct research and development needed to accelerate the U.S. biomanufacturing sector.
The Agile BioFoundry is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office.