Kiwi couple’s research may position NZ at centre of lucrative ‘green biotech’ market

A husband and wife team could help change the way products as common as car tyres are made by recycling chemicals from greenhouse gases.

A two-year project, led by University of Otago biochemists Dr Monica Gerth and Dr Wayne Patrick, could also help position New Zealand at the centre of a global "green biotech" market projected to reach a value of $100 billion by 2020.

The couple are halfway through the programme, which hinges on a gas-eating microbe developed by Chicago-based company LanzaTech.

This microbe would be used to produce chemicals from greenhouse gases that could be worth billions of dollars a year.

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The two chemicals - butanone and 2-butanol - are at present produced from petroleum, which the chemistry industry is seeking to replace with a more sustainable source.

Using LanzaTech's microbe, which occurs naturally and has the same World Health Organisation risk profile as baker's yeast, Dr Gerth and Dr Patrick would engineer an alternative independent from petroleum.

The microbe can efficiently convert waste gases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into bio ethanol, and also produces a chemical building block known as 2,3-butanediol.

"That's where we come in," Dr Patrick told the Herald.

"We are looking to engineer new enzymes that can take this compound and convert it into these tradeable, valuable chemicals."

Specifically, they want to spin 2,3-butanediol into butanone, which is a key ingredient in paints, varnishes and adhesives, and 2-butanol, which is needed in the production of synthetic rubbers, particularly car tyres.

The worldwide market for these chemicals is in the millions of tonnes and billions of dollars a year.

Dr Gerth said because 2,3-butanediol was a metabolic end product in nature, enabling the reaction to take place that will ultimately produce the two desired chemicals was "really hard biochemistry".

"Nature doesn't have the enzymes to catalyse the reactions that we're looking for," she said. "But we are confident we can engineer existing enzymes to do these new reactions within the next year or two."

Having proven the ability to convert greenhouse gases into valuable products, the couple believe they will have established proof of principle.

The university and LanzaTech already share an intellectual property agreement: the firm will have the exclusive licence to use the research.

Eventually, the couple hope to use the process to convert other waste streams into useful products.

"For example, carbon containing waste from the forestry and dairy industries should be equally good for our approach," Dr Patrick said.

The research also holds the appeal of helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's a really happy place for us to be," Dr Patrick said.

"We can put our skills to use toward a problem that we feel passionate about."

What it's all about

So, a Kiwi couple plan to use greenhouse gases to make chemicals that can produce tyres?

Yes, but it's a little more complicated than that. Dr Monica Gerth and Dr Wayne Patrick are building upon technology already developed by biotech company LanzaTech. That being a gas-eating microbe which can efficiently convert carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into bio ethanol.

What happens next?
This conversion process creates a compound called 2,3-butanediol. Dr Gerth and Dr Patrick want to take this and transform it into butanone which is a key ingredient in paints, varnishes and adhesives, and 2-butanol, needed in the production of synthetic rubbers.

So all this could be done without the need for petroleum?
That's the plan. And the global chemistry industry is looking for alternative sources, which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The economic potential must be huge.
The worldwide market for the chemicals Dr Gerth and Dr Patrick want to engineer is in the millions of tonnes and billions of dollars per year. The global green biotech market is projected to reach $100 billion this decade.