Harnessing synthetic biology to make sustainable alternatives to petroleum products
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is going to require a transformation in the way we make things. That’s because the hydrocarbons found in fuels like crude oil, natural gas, and coal are also in everyday items like plastics, clothing, and cosmetics.
Now Visolis, founded by Deepak Dugar SM ’11, MBA ’13, PhD ’13, is combining synthetic biology with chemical catalysis to reinvent the way the world makes things — and reducing gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions in the process.
The company — which uses a microbe to ferment biomass waste like wood chips and create a molecular building block called mevalonic acid — is more sustainably producing everything from car tires and cosmetics to aviation fuels by tweaking the chemical processes involved to make different byproducts.
“We started with [the rubber component] isoprene as the main molecule we produce [from mevalonic acid], but we’ve expanded our platform with this unique combination of chemistry and biology that allows us to decarbonize multiple supply chains very rapidly and efficiently,” Dugar explains. “Imagine carbon-negative yoga pants. We can make that happen. Tires can be carbon-negative, personal care can lower its footprint — and we’re already selling into personal care. So in everything from personal care to apparel to industrial goods, our platform is enabling decarbonization of manufacturing.”
“Carbon-negative” is a term Dugar uses a lot. Visolis has already partnered with some of the world’s largest consumers of isoprene, a precursor to rubber, and now Dugar wants to prove out the company’s process in other emissions-intensive industries.
“Our process is carbon-negative because plants are taking CO2 from the air, and we take that plant matter and process it into something structural, like synthetic rubber, which is used for things like roofing, tires, and other applications,” Dugar explains. “Generally speaking, most of that material at the end of its life gets recycled, for example to tarmac or road, or, worst-case scenario, it ends up in a landfill, so the CO2 that was captured by the plant matter stays captured in the materials. That means our production can be carbon-negative depending on the emissions of the production process. That allows us to not only reduce climate change but start reversing it. That was an insight I had about 10 years ago at MIT.”
Finding a path
For his PhD, Dugar explored the economics of using microbes to make high-octane gas additives. He also took classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management on sustainability and entrepreneurship, including the particularly influential course 15.366 (Climate and Energy Ventures). The experience inspired him to start a company.
“I wanted to work on something that could have the largest climate impact, and that was replacing petroleum,” Dugar says. “It was about replacing petroleum not just as a fuel but as a material as well. Everything from the clothes we wear to the furniture we sit on is often made using petroleum.”
By analyzing recent advances in synthetic biology and making some calculations from first principles, Dugar decided that a microbial approach to cleaning up the production of rubber was viable. He participated in the MIT Clean Energy Prize and worked with others at MIT to prove out the idea. But it was still just an idea. After graduation, he took a consulting job at a large company, spending his nights and weekends renting lab space to continue trying to make his sustainable rubber a reality.
After 18 months, by applying engineering concepts like design-for-scale to synthetic biology, Dugar was able to develop a microbe that met 80 percent of his criteria for making an intermediate molecule called mevalonic acid. From there, he developed a chemical catalysis process that converted mevalonic acid to isoprene, the main component of natural rubber. Visolis has since patented other chemical conversion processes that turn mevalonic acid to aviation fuel, polymers, and fabrics.
Dugar left his consulting job in 2014 and was awarded a fellowship to work on Visolis full-time at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab via Activate, an incubator empowering scientists to reinvent the world.
From rubber to jet fuels
Today, in addition to isoprene, Visolis is selling skin care products through the brand Ameva Bio, which produces mevalonic acid-based creams by recycling plant byproducts created in other processes. The company offers refillable bottles and even offsets emissions from the shipping of its products.
“We are working throughout the supply chain,” Dugar says. “It made sense to clean up the isoprene part of the rubber supply chain rather than the entire supply chain. But we’re also producing molecules for skin that are better for you, so you can put something much more sustainable and healthier on your body instead of petrochemicals. We launched Ameva to demonstrate that brands can leverage synthetic biology to turn carbon-negative ingredients into high-performing products.”
Visolis is also starting the process of gaining regulatory approval for its sustainable aviation fuel, which Dugar believes could have the biggest climate impact of any of the company’s products by cleaning up the production of fuels for commercial flight.
“We’re working with leading companies to help them decarbonize aviation” Dugar says. “If you look at the lifecycle of fuel, the current petroleum-based approach is we dig out hydrocarbons from the ground and burn it, emitting CO2 into the air. In our process, we take plant matter, which affixes to CO2 and captures renewable energy in those bonds, and then we transfer that into aviation fuel plus things like synthetic rubber, yoga pants, and other things that continue to hold the carbon. So, our factories can still operate at net zero carbon emissions.”
Visolis is already generating millions of dollars in revenue, and Dugar says his goal is to scale the company rapidly now that its platform molecule has been validated.
“We have been scaling our technology by 10 times every two to three years and are now looking to increase deployment of our technology at the same pace, which is very exciting.” Dugar says. “If you extrapolate that, very quickly you get to massive impact. That’s our goal.”