In the 1930s the revolutionary invention of nylon, the world’s first fully synthetic material, helped spawn the plastics age. Now, more than 80 years later, clean manufacturing technology company Genomatica has announced production of the first tonne of the key ingredient for bio-based nylon – derived from plants, rather than crude oil.
Every year, the world makes 5m tonnes of ‘nylon-6’ fibre for carpets, clothing, car interiors, engineered plastics and food packaging, requiring large amounts of water and energy and resulting in 60m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
For San Diego-based Genomatica, working alongside major European nylon producer Aquafil, harnessing the power of synthetic biology is key to reducing the environmental footprint of one of the world’s most ubiquitous plastics. The nylon industry alone is worth US$10bn globally, offering the bioeconomy a huge potential market to tap into.
The new plant-based production process engineers microorganisms to ferment plant sugars and produce caprolactam – a ‘precursor’, or essential ingredient, for making nylon and other materials – in a 100% renewable way.
CEO of Genomatica Christopher Schilling said the bottom line is best served by sustainability.
“DuPont’s landmark production of nylon 80 years ago introduced a highly versatile staple material to the apparel, textile and engineering product industries.
It’s a terrific material and now, with the power of biotechnology, we can reinvent where it comes from. This is a major step forward in offering a new, more sustainable future with a better nylon for the full range of industries it serves– Christopher Schilling, CEO of Genomatica
As part of this aim, the company is also a member of Project EFFECTIVE, a consortium of 12 partners, including brands such as H&M, Vaude, Carvico and Balsan, which was formed to drive the production of more sustainable bio-based fibres for consumer products, made from renewable feedstocks.
Renewably-sourced nylon is the third commercial success for Genomatica, whose sustainable key ingredients, using plants and waste, have also already found their way into the manufacturing processes of Spandex and some cosmetics.
For Schilling, its success further underlines the argument for sustainable, bio-based approaches to material precursors and he called the initial one-tonne production a small, but important, step. The company’s next goal is to reach commercial-scale levels of 30,000-100,000 tonnes per year.
“We’re seeing consumers demand more sustainable products. Our technology provides brands with a solution to meet this consumer demand,” he added.