From Fossil Fuels to Sustainable Solutions: Harnessing Synthetic Biology for Greener Products

In today’s consumer-driven society, the continuous demand for products hinges on a seamless flow of goods entering the market, a feat made possible by extensive large-scale manufacturing processes.

From Fossil Fuels to Sustainable Solutions: Harnessing Synthetic Biology for Greener Products

Image Credit: Visolis

However, fulfilling these demands relies heavily on the utilization of fossil fuels. They play a crucial role not only in powering production plants and manufacturing facilities but also in serving as vital components in everyday products such as cosmetics, clothing, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

Yet, in the current climate, there is an emphasis on reducing dependency on fossil-based fuels and moving toward the decarbonization of all major industries and manufacturing processes. Recently, Visolis, a company founded by MIT Graduate Deepak Dugar Ph.D., is setting its sights on “reinventing how the world makes things,” according to the company website.

Synthetic Biology

Using synthetic biology, the company claims it can manufacture high-performance materials that are not only carbon neutral but also carbon negative. This could positively impact materials production processes by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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.

Deepak Dugar, MIT Graduate

Combining synthetic biology and conventional chemical catalysis for the production of new materials, Visolis is at the forefront of producing a diverse portfolio of materials with the potential to change several markets and industries. Moreover, the company claims that production costs can be reduced between 20-50% compared to existing processes.1

Using microbes to ferment biomass waste and create a molecular building block called mevalonic acid, the MIT company is able to sustainably produce everything from car tires and cosmetics to aviation fuels.

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.

Deepak Dugar, MIT Graduate

Replacing Petroleum

Having previously worked on sustainability and entrepreneurial projects, Dugar was inspired to find a way to use microbes and synthetic biology to address the climate crisis and find something that would considerably influence decarbonization practices.

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.

Deepak Dugar, MIT Graduate

After carefully evaluating some of the recent progress made in synthetic biology, Dugar applied his own knowledge and came to a conclusion that, in theory, the production of carbon-negative rubber would be possible.

After setting out to prove this theory, Dugar eventually developed a microbe that was an 80% match for his criteria. Subsequently, he then took the microbe and, using a traditional chemical catalysis process, was able to convert the microbe into isoprene, which is found in natural rubber.

This has led Visolis to scale up its experimentation process and apply other conventional chemical conversion methods to produce microbes that can be used as alternative building blocks for fabrics, polymers, and even jet fuel.

The company has also recently initiated the regulatory approval process for its jet fuel in an attempt to put a new sustainable petroleum alternative fuel on the market to clean up commercial aviation.

We’re working with leading companies to help them decarbonize aviation… 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.

Deepak Dugar, MIT Graduate

With massive climate and decarbonization ambitions, Visolis is continuing to develop new, innovative practices. The next step for Visolis is to commercialize its eco-friendly solutions and usher in a new wave of advanced industry production practices.

References and Further Reading

  1. Winn, Z. (2023) Harnessing synthetic biology to make sustainable alternatives to petroleum products, MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available at: https://news.mit.edu/2023/visolis-startup-sustainable-alternaties-petroleum-0720
  2. "Visolis - Reinventing How The World Makes Materials”. Visolisbio.Com, 2023, https://www.visolisbio.com/

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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