The challenges of the chemical industry
Technological developments in engineering and manufacture powered the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th century. During this period, living standards increased dramatically, driven by our increased capacity to produce chemicals, food, and other essential materials. Throughout this period, emphasis was placed on scalability and meeting the demands of a booming population. However, it is only recently that the negative impact of this boon on the earth’s limited resources has become apparent.
Modern industrialization has come at a cost. As a global population, we are consuming far more than our planet can sustain. Meanwhile, due to a steadily growing population with access to a globalized market, demand for materials and products shows no signs of diminishing. To satisfy these opposed demands, a drive towards lower individual consumption will need to be met with enormous innovation to produce more tomorrow with less than we use today.
To that end, the global chemical industry has a central role to play in this movement. Today’s chemical products are primarily based on petroleum feedstocks, and after a hundred years of petroleum-based innovation, most possibilities have been explored. Moreover, the need for dramatic innovation and increasing demand comes when the chemical industry already finds itself under significant pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Before 2050 the industry needs to cut its emissions by half while simultaneously quadrupling production to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. The solution is not apparent, but the answer is certainly not a repeat of the past.
In conventional chemical manufacturing, petroleum feedstocks are converted into products, often with the help of rare-earth catalysts, and so-called forcing conditions such as very high temperatures. These processes, frequently highly optimized to produce in-demand chemicals cheaply, have a significant (often unaccounted for) negative impact on the environment. Some big players have recently begun to account for the environmental cost of these processes, and the message is clear- change is needed (https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2016/06/01/dutch-company-royal-dsm-prices-carbon-to-future-proof-its-business)
Leading the charge towards a sustainable future are pioneers in the area of Synthetic biology. SynBio is a multidisciplinary field that involves the (re-)design of biological systems and components that do not exist in the natural world driven by engineering principles such as standardized and modular parts.
This new paradigm is all about going back to the roots: the way nature has produced chemicals for billions of years and then improving on it. Not only can the biological approach improve efficiency in manufacturing, but it also allows us to scale with a significant reduction in impact on ecology and resources. SynBio has all the reasons to be the basis of the next great industrial boom. This boom takes us away from consuming our habitat to a bio-economy where symbiosis with nature is top-of-mind. If in the 2010s, ‘software was eating the world’, we may instead see in the coming years that ‘living organisms will re-engineer our economy’.
The EnginZyme paradigm shift
A spin-out of the Stockholm University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, EnginZyme has for the past seven years been working on a disruptive technology that is set to revolutionize the impact synthetic biology has on the manufacturing of everything, from food ingredients to biomaterials to active pharmaceutical ingredients. The use of intact living cells, a.k.a fermentation, has been a cornerstone of the biotech industry for decades. Even synthetic biology with its systematized parts still relies primarily on living organisms to carry out the chemistry. EnginZyme has a more effective technology that has seen a 40% reduction in CapEx and a 70% reduction in utility costs compared to the equivalent fermentation process.
The magic of the EnginZyme solution is going cell-free with synthetic biology. At a glance, EnginZyme attaches just the necessary enzymes to a proprietary support material to run complex chemical reactions. Their technique harnesses the power to build molecular complexity using biology without needing the cell itself, and all of the complexity that goes along with it. By separating the enzymes — the engines of the cell — from the bacteria, EnginZyme greatly simplifies the chemical production process, removing the extraneous chemical reactions and energy necessary to keep the bacteria alive.
A rough analogy might be to imagine a room full of bouncing basketballs, where you want only one particular basketball to end up in the hoop. The organism engineering approach would be to try tens of thousands of essentially random configurations of the balls and then use machine learning algorithms to predict which configurations will make the balls bounce in a way so that just the one you want ends up in the hoop. This is hard because you need to constantly worry about where all the other balls are and what they are doing. The EnginZyme approach is instead to isolate the preferred ball, put it in a room on its own, and place it in such a way that it bounces directly into the hoop – basic geometry suffices.
One example where EnginZyme’s technology is poised to make a significant impact is in nutrition. Our technology could enable ready access to many different types of healthy sugars, i.e. sugar replacements, with properties tailored to specific use cases. We see a parallel for developing alternative plastics used for different purposes (plastic bottles versus plastic bags, for example). In the future, these specific formulations could be replaced with bio-based and biodegradable alternatives. Both examples represent products that would need to be manufactured on a scale that only cell-free can sustain.
EnginZyme’s ambition is to play a crucial role in tackling climate change — it is dedicated to bringing new enzyme technologies to existing industrial infrastructure to disrupt unsustainable chemical markets. But, ultimately, the sky is the limit for what enzymes can do. With its strong vision and dedicated team, EnginZyme is leading that change.