The Intrexon promise: Using natural gas to fuel the future

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Robert Walsh, Senior Vice Present, Energy Sector and President of the Industrial Products Division, Intrexon Energy
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Figure 1: Visual representation of the chemical processes at work within the methanotroph to transform natural gas into valuable byproducts.

Using natural gas as a feedstock in industrial fermentation is a concept that has long held promise, but until now, lacked the innovation to unleash its value. Intrexon’s bioconversion platform, which has been built on its foundational work with methane-consuming bacteria called methanotrophs, makes this process possible.

By using the first-ever natural gas-to-liquids bioconversion platform powered by fermentation, Intrexon is unlocking the full potential of America’s greatest untapped energy resource. We are engineering the biology of methanotrophs with a genetic toolbox that we created – it did not previously exist.

In doing so, we have the ability to engineer the methanotroph more efficiently to convert natural gas into a wide range of valuable chemicals and fuels for a myriad of applications.

Scalable Industrial Fermentation – Impact for fuels: Chemistry has made tremendous progress in the two centuries since Louis Pasteur’s original thesis, with large-scale deployments in the fields of microbiology, bacteriology and biochemistry.

Today, we’re standing at an innovation crossroads within the fuels and chemicals industries. Manufacturing costs are skyrocketing and global demands are still not met. When we look at oil and gas specifically, naturally occurring oil supplies face depletion as consumer demand for bio-based fuels grows. Legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions is on the horizon. In some places, it’s already a reality. Alternative fuels are no longer an abstract ideal – they’re quickly becoming a business and societal necessity.

Even so, current technology and infrastructure are not in place for a full transition to renewable fuels. Oil still remains the cornerstone of today’s gasoline market. However, new technologies – like Intrexon’s – are giving us the tools to observe and even modify gasoline blendstock at the molecular level. In doing so, we’ve opened the door to a new energy future.

Energy security and environmental concerns have sparked a quest for cleaner burning fuels, but to date most solutions have been expensive, inefficient, or difficult to scale. Intrexon has seized the opportunity to use the cheapest, most abundant source of usable carbon – natural gas – to produce isobutanol, a clean burning gasoline additive that addresses some of these challenges head-on. What’s more: cleaner burning gasoline ingredients like isobutanol and ethanol represent an $80B opportunity worldwide.

Fuels, Chemicals and Lubricants – A widening opportunity: As the bioengineering industry continues to evolve, companies across different sectors and markets are increasingly looking for ways to create new products that have a smaller footprint on the environment without sacrificing functionality and end-use value. Using the same bioconversion platform with natural gas feedstock, we‘re already creating a spectrum of valuable chemicals and fuels including farnesene, 1,4-butanediol, 2,3-butanediol, ispoprene and isobutyraldehyde – the building blocks for industrial and consumer products like synthetic rubber, acrylics, resins and spandex.

(See figure 1)

Only the beginning: Many companies have shown a good deal of promise in the lab, but haven’t been able to deliver on the balance sheet. Others have faltered when attempting to scale-up from a single beaker to fully-functioning pilot plant. This platform promises to make Intrexon the first of its kind to marry innovative technical success with profitable economics. Ultimately, our bioengineering technology is enabling us to build better solutions to critical world problems.

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Image Source: Courtesy of Intrexon Energy