Newlight featured in BioBased Digest: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Biocatalysts.”

Original article – BioBasedDigest

Could enzyme biocatalysts replace fermentation among the hottest process platforms in industrial biotech?

Newlight thinks so, as it applies its supercatalyst to low-cost plastics. And no petroleum or food crops required.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. 
Benjamin: Yes, sir. 
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? 
Benjamin: Yes, I am. 
Mr. McGuire: Plastics. 
(From The Graduate)

In the weeks and months to come — and in the wake of hiccups at Gevo and Amyris, that have prompted concern over scalability of advanced fermentation technologies — we are going to hear a lot more about biocatalysis as an alternative to fermentation.

If you’re confused about the difference – or didn’t realize there was one, or hadn’t heard about biocatalysis at all – you are one of the many, not the few.

One of the reasons we need to focus on biocatalysts, sooner rather than later, is that a new class of technologies are now coming out of stealth mode, that have discovered ways to make biocatalysts work better than ever before.

These breakthroughs are opening up some low-cost feedstocks that haven’t been able to be used, previously – and opening up pathways to low-cost products that improve everyday lives. In short, they could be game-changers.

An impressive entry in the field is Newlight Technologies, now emerging from a long stretch in stealth mode.

The breakthrough? Newlight uses a new class of biocatalyst to convert air and greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide (which can be derived from a range of sources, including wastewater treatment systems, digesters, landfills, and energy facilities), into PHA-based plastics that can match or exceed oil-based commodity plastics on performance while significantly out-competing on price.

Newlight’s plastics require no oil, no food crops, and can be made into biodegradable products that offer revolutionary recyclability: starting, finishing, and recycling as greenhouse gas.

What is PHA, exactly?

PHAs are biodegradable in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions, are biocompatible with mammalian tissues, and, as thermoplastics, can be used as alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and polystyrene.

In comparison to petrochemical-based plastics, which are neither biodegradable nor made from sustainable sources of carbon, PHA plastics afford significant environmental benefits.

So, what is Newlight up to?

“I read an article in 2003,” recalls CEO Mark Herrema, “about the methane emissions from cows. I did some kitchen table math. A 1000 cow farm, it is like opening a natural gas pipeline and gushing it into air, so I started looking at ways to turn methane emission into useful products.

“I was at Princeton, and [CTO] Kenton Kimmel was at Northwestern. We started and eventually moved into lab in CA. We quickly found that we were not the first to have the idea to convert methane into PHA, but that there was no way to actually to do it cost effectively.”

“We knew that what we had to do is make them cost effective. Because it is all about performance in commodity materials, not green. You have to match or exceed on price and performance.

The biocatalyst

“Today we use both methane and CO2 and we use a biocatalyst,” says Herrema. “That was the fundamental discovery, we are getting 500 percent performance compared to catalysts used in the past.

“Our big breakthrough — there was a switch that turned on to limit the activity of the catalyst. It blew through roof when we turned switch off.”

Biocatalysts vs fermentation

OK, longtime Digesterati with deep background in the science can skip the next paragraph. But let me give you a short primer on enzyme biocatalysts and on fermentation.

Take a piece of wheat bread and give it a really good chew. After a few moments, you’ll notice that that the bread is stating to taste pretty sweet. How’s that? Well, that’s biocatalysis. It’s an enzyme called alpha-amylase (it is a protein) that converts starches into sugars. It resides in pretty good concentrations in human saliva – to jump start the conversion of complex foods into the compounds that your body needs for life.

Now, since everyone knows you can turn those wheat-based sugars into alcohol — for example, wheat beer — why can’t the body fulfill a frat brother’s dream and convert wheat bread into sugar, and then alcohol?

The reason is that alcohol is traditionally produced from sugars via fermentation – a little yeast microorganism called saccharomyces cerevisiae — and we don’t carry those around in our body.

So what’s the big problem with scaling up fermentation? Well, it’s something like what happens with little kids. In small numbers, they can be angelic. Crowded together on a playground in vast numbers with low supervision, mayhem ensues. Only in this case, the playgrounds are fermenters.

Back to biocatalysts

So, the main takeaway is that Newlight has a biocatalyst performing five times better than previously known catalysts. It’s enabled them to deliver a cost-effective process for producing valuable thermoplastics.

The product set

The product set, though, could be wide for the pelletized resins that Newlight is introducing to the market. Their customer base remains somewhat stealthy for now. That said, plastics made from the line are currently being sold to customers with applications ranging from furniture parts and storage containers to film applications.

“Our biggest customers?” said Herrema. “We haven’t gotten clearance to mention names, but we will publish them as we sign LOIs. What I can tell you, in a general sense, is that one is largest manufacturers of classroom and office furniture, which use polypropylene and ABS.

Capabilities of Newlight’s advanced-generation line include the ability to produce the company’s most advanced-performance grade resins, including resins that can supplant otherwise non-sustainable grades of polypropylene, polyethylene, ABS, and TPU.

Gas vs other feedstocks

In this case, the primary feedstocks are natural gas and CO2. In the case of CO2, Newlight is obtaining hydrogen from water.

Next step in scale-up

Newlight Technologies announced this week the addition of 100,000-pounds per year in new production capacity on the company’s advanced-generation gas-to-plastic production line, which converts air and greenhouse gases into high-performance bioplastics that can significantly out-compete oil-based plastics on price.

Next steps

Having raised $10 million to date – the company expects to progress to a new multi-million pound per year capacity within the coming quarters – looking to add new strategics and VCs in a new capital round that the company has just kicked off.

The company has completed commercial engineering for the multi-million pound plant – and is now 50 percent through permitting. The site is in Southern Cal.

The bottom line

Keep an eye on Newlight – and also keep an eye on enzyme-based biocatalysts as a technical platform. Should fermentation regain its momentum, they offer an enabling front end technologies as well as an alternative route to commercial products. Should fermentation continue to stumble, biocatalysts may emerge as a leading path to scale in industrial biotechnology.