Amyris and Michelin Will Make Bio-Derived Tires

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In the future, tires may be made of renewable rubber.

Lots of startup companies thought they could use synthetic biology to change the world — and take on Big Oil and Big Pharma — by making biofuels and microbe-derived medicines. Though some of those admirable projects are still in the works, companies are finding that, to stay profitable, they need to add some bio-derived specialty chemicals.

Erika Check Hayden, who writes from San Francisco for Nature News, reports on the latest example:

Amyris, a synthetic-biology company in Emeryville, California, agreed to work with French tyre manufacturer Michelin to produce isoprene, the chemical building block used to make synthetic rubber.

Their product is expected to be on the road by 2015. Most tires are now made with petroleum starting materials. “Bio-derived chemicals still account for just 1–2% of the overall chemicals market, but that is still expected to amount to about US$1 billion next year,” according to Nature News.

Amyris, most famous for producing a cheap, synthetic version of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, has left the drug business. Now it’s a synthetic chemical shop. Among its specialties are lubricants, fragrances, and plastics ingredients.

But why bother with isoprene? Hayden writes that the renewable material provides several business advantages for companies large and small:

Conventional chemicals companies such as Dow and DuPont are interested in part because bio-derived versions of their products can be marketed as ‘green’. In many cases, they come from renewable sources that have a lower carbon footprint than petrochemicals. The rising cost of oil is also an important factor.

In addition, isoprene can be a dependable source of revenue now, unlike biofuels. Christopher Ryan, president of Gevo, an Englewood, Colorado-based company that retrofits existing biofuels plants to make renewable isobutanol, told Hayden, “We can develop our business plans without uncertainty around what the government might do with regard to biofuel subsidies and things like that — that’s the nice thing about the chemicals market.”

Amyris isn’t the first biotech company to pair with a tire manufacturer, let alone an industry giant. Hayden reports that Palo Alto, California-based company Genencor has been working since 2008 with the Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear tire company to make isoprene, and expects to begin selling commercially by next year. (Dupont now owns Genencor.)

And  “the list goes on,” Hayden writes. For example:

Solazyme, of South San Francisco, California, which extracts oils from bioengineered algae, has a partnership with UK-based Unilever, which owns the Dove and Vaseline brands, to make cosmetic ingredients. And in April, Dow Chemical of Midland, Michigan partnered with Boulder, Colorado-based OPX Biotechnologies to make bio-derived acrylic, a component of many plastics.

Source: “Renewable rubber hits the road,” Nature News, 9/30/11
Image by David Reber’s Hammer Photography, used under its Creative Commons license.

Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.