Engineering biology to replace petrochemicals

Project contact
Dr Emma Elliott RTTP
Business Development Manager Schools of Biology and Chemistry College of Science & Engineering

Dr Stephen Wallace, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in Chemical Biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh, says we underestimate the extent of petrochemicals in our lives.

Two thirds of our clothes are made using fossil fuels - 85% of which will be sent to landfill within 10 years, he says, and more than half of the top 100 pharmaceuticals on the market today are manufactured from fossil fuels.

But as we know, using fossil fuels at our current rate is unsustainable. In Stephen’s lab, he is engineering biology to replace them in common manufacturing processes, and working with industry to do so.

Dr Stephen Wallace smiling at his computer

Image: Dr Stephen Wallace

Engineering biology

We are engineering biology to build cells, like you might build Lego, and create microbes that can carry out the same processes, but without fossil fuels. ”

-Dr Stephen Wallace

You may never have heard of adipic acid, but it is a major chemical ingredient in the production of nylon, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. At the moment, it is produced from benzene, in the tall metal chimneys of the refineries you see by the motorway. The production of adipic acid is responsible for ten per cent of global emissions of nitrous oxide – a gas more potent and dangerous for the environment than carbon dioxide or methane. But Stephen can make it in the lab instead.

Stephen says:

We combined DNA from diverse microorganisms and plants and inserted it into a bacterial cell – the common bacteria E.coli. We discovered that these engineered bacteria can break down a molecule called guaiacol into adipic acid. We can do it at room temperature, in 24 hours, in water. The process generates no greenhouse gases, and the only by-product is more water. ”

Working with industry

In exploring specific uses for this biotechnology, he is supported by Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh's commercialisation service, to work with industry, such as global additives manufacturer Lubrizol. Lubrizol is interested in creating sustainable surfactants – an essential ingredient in engine oil, as well as cleaning products - currently made from petrochemicals.

Gary Walker is a Research and Development Technology Manager with Lubrizol. He says:

Lubrizol is interested in sustainable chemistries, partly because some of our markets demand it, partly because it’s part of our strategic work – looking ahead to how we will do things on five or ten years’ time.
Working with academics is a way for us to de-risk early-stage development projects – we don’t have time or resources to explore new techniques in-house.
We are working closely with Stephen, who has a really unique and interesting perspective because he’s at the interface of sciences. Stephen is a chemist, but he brings in biology, and that bridges the gaps in our knowledge. I think the future techniques we need are at these interfaces. He’s a strategic advisor for us and we are financing a PhD and, indirectly, a post-doc in his lab. ”

Circular economy

Even more sustainably, the source of the guaiacol Stephen uses to manufacture adipic acid comes from lignin– a by-product of the agriculture and paper milling industries, currently viewed as waste and so burned for energy. Stephen and his team are working with Bio-Sep – a UK-based clean technology provider – to turn lignin into high value biochemicals such as adipic acid. Stephen says:

The petrochemical industry has been one of our greatest achievements – full of elegant strategies to extract fossil fuels from the earth and transform that carbon into compounds to treat cancer and infectious diseases, into paracetamol, into polymers for products in our homes, for clothes, for cosmetics. But our obsession with oil has brought our planet to its knees, and we need to look elsewhere for the next industrial revolution.
We are attracting industry interest and grants with our research, which makes me hopeful about what we can achieve. The petrochemical industry transforms oil, which is made up of fossilised plants and other carbon-based organisms, into chemicals. Now, we can use enzymes and cells to engineer molecules instead, and leave the oil in the ground.
As a chemist concerned about the future of our planet and the effects of the chemical industry on the environment, this is not only a future I want to live in, but one I am determined to make happen. ”

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