A New Path For Waste Management: Trash-to-Chemicals

Trash king Waste Management (s WM) will soon have new use for its waste: chemicals, courtesy of a new development partnership with green chemistry company Genomatica. The move is Waste Management’s latest, as it looks to expand the applications that can be made out of the municipal waste it collects, from biofuels to fertilizers to biogas.

Genomatica, based in San Diego, will engineer the organisms that will convert synthesis gas (syngas) produced from the trash into chemical compounds. The companies didn’t disclose the terms of the deal.

Genomatica’s researchers will make use of the patent secured last year to engineer organisms, such as E. coli, so that they can work with syngas, said Mark Burk, CTO of Genomatica. Burk declined to say what other organisms are under consideration by his team for the syngas conversion process.

Syngas can be made from a variety of sources, including natural gas, coal and biomass, and turned into electricity, fuels and other chemical compounds. Many companies are trying to produce ethanol using syngas made from renewable sources, such as wood chips, plants and trash. “Syngas is one of the most flexible and versatile feedstock from a wide range of materials – any organic matter can be gasified,” Burk said.

Genomatica, founded in 2000, already is using engineered E. coli to convert sugar into a chemical (1,4-butanediol, or BDO) that has been used to make spandex, running shoes and plastic auto parts. Genomatica has been running a pilot production of BDO in Michigan since last summer. The pilot facility can produce 3,000 liters of BDO, and the company plans to expand that to 10,000 liters this year, Burk said.

The company hasn’t announced customers yet for its BDO product and has taken 2.5 years to move from initial development to pilot. Genomatica has raised $40 million in venture capital from firm such as Alloy Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Mohr Davidow Ventures.

There are basically two main ways to turn syngas into fuel or chemical additives: chemical catalysts, or organisms. Genomatica’s perspective is that chemical catalysts can lead to a more energy-intensive processes, and using organisms can be cheaper, less energy intensive, and can yield more chemical products. Other companies that are using organisms to convert syngas into products include Coskata and INEOS Bio, but Coskata and INEOS Bio are using naturally occurring organisms whereas Genomatica is developing engineered ones.

Waste Management has been actively lining up partners like Genomatica over the past year, and invested in trash to biofuel company Enerkem and will also provide trash to Fulcrum BioEnergy. Here’s a detailed look at Waste Management’s investment and innovation strategy.

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Photo courtesy of Genomatica