There is a growing global movement working towards replacing conventional synthetic products – ones that are toxic to make or use, difficult to recycle, and have large carbon footprints – with products made from plants, trees, or fungi that can be safely returned to the earth at the end of their useful life. This so-called bioeconomy is in its infant stages, but there is increasing interest in turning successful research into manufactured products.
One example is nylon. Nylon was created in the 1930s by DuPont. It has been used and continues to be used in a wide range of products. The problem with it is that it is made from petroleum, it doesn’t biodegrade, and producing it generates nitrous oxide, which is a problematic greenhouse gas.
A San Diego-based company called Genomatica has developed a plant-based nylon using biosynthesis, a process in which a genetically engineered microorganism ferments plant sugars to create a chemical intermediate that can be turned into the nylon-6 polymer, and then into textiles.
The impetus for developing bio-based products includes the growing public disgust at the mounting environmental toll of plastic, not the least of which is that people and animals are increasingly ingesting it. Coupled with this, there is a rapidly-growing torrent of funding, especially in the US and Europe, aimed at accelerating the transition away from products that are non-biodegradable, toxic, and that produce carbon emissions. Last September saw the launch of the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative which will support research and development on such topics as the use of sustainable biomass and waste resources to make non-toxic, bio-based fuels, chemicals, and fertilizers.
Photo, posted May 27, 2010, courtesy of André C via Flickr.