Chemical companies around the world are coming to White Dog Labs in search of designer microbes.
White Dog Labs rides chemistry's next wave
Chemical companies around the world are coming to biotech company White Dog Labs in search of designer microbes. The Delaware start-up, which engineers microorganisms for applications ranging from biofuel production to the consumption of waste gas emissions, is carving out a niche in the growing renewable-based chemical industry.
Almost anybody who drives a car knows that ethanol, the biofuel made primarily from corn, is quickly becoming a standard component of gasoline. Most of the gas now sold in the U.S contains some percentage of ethanol as a result of the EPA's renewable fuel standard (RFS), and that number is likely to increase as new RFS requirements take effect.
Although ethanol has become the biofuel of choice, its lesser-known cousin butanol is an even better biofuel, says Bryan Tracy, CEO of Delaware biotech company White Dog Labs. "Butanol has a higher energy content, it doesn't mix well with water, and it's not made from food, but rather from what's left over: husks, stalks and cobs."
So why isn't butanol going into gas tanks? "Butanol hasn't been around as long, and it's a steep hill to make the numbers work," Tracy explains. In other words, he says, until demand and public policy drive a bigger appetite for butanol, it's just too expensive to use in gasoline.
In the meantime, however, growing demand for butanol from other markets is making up for the slow move to gas. Butanol is used as a solvent in paints and lacquers, where it commands a higher price, making production economically viable. The same is happening with a number of other "renewable" chemicals that can be produced by microorganisms that feed on renewable food sources like plants, glycerol, sugars, and even gasses like carbon dioxide, rather than from fossil fuels.
This is good news for White Dog Labs, a small biotech company started five years ago by Terry Papoutsakis, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Delaware and his then grad student Tracy. Today, White Dog Labs designs and produces strains of bacteria that can be engineered to produce specific renewable chemicals or even complete specific tasks, such as consume waste gas emissions.
According to Tracy, renewable chemicals produced by microorganisms play an important role in contributing to a more sustainable chemical industry, and in addressing general environmental concerns arising from the use of fossil fuels. "Renewable chemicals can reduce fossil fuel consumption, reduce the carbon footprint of chemical/fuel production and consumption, and enable the use of local, renewable resources as feedstocks and energy inputs to chemical/fuel production," he explains.
Ironically, Tracy notes, renewable chemicals are getting a boost from a new phenomenon occurring in the fossil fuel sector: Cheaper production of the chemical ethylene from natural gas fracking. Until now, ethylene and other chemicals called olefins were manufactured as a byproduct of the oil refining process, but ethylene can be produced more economically with the vast amounts of ethane liberated by fracking. Olefins aren't part of the natural gas equation, however, and so as olefin production decreases at oil refineries, chemical companies will need to turn to other sources for their olefin supplies, such as renewable chemical companies like White Dog Labs.
This increase in demand will eventually allow renewable chemical manufacturers to achieve economies of scale for other applications, such as butanol as a biofuel, Tracy concludes. "We work with the big chemical companies to provide the engineered organisms, so that they can set up manufacturing operations," Tracy explains. "We have clients from all over the world who come to us for our designer microbes for their own applications, and the shale gas boom has just brought more companies to our door."
The Delaware Angle
Although Tracy himself is not a native Delawarean, he is quick to note that White Dog Labs is. The company is often cited by the University of Delaware as an outstanding example of the potential for public-private collaboration, and Delaware's heritage in the chemicals industry has been critical for White Dog Labs.
"Delaware is an epicenter for chemicals," Tracy says. "The State is in the top three densities of the chemical industries here in the U.S., which means there is a wealth of brain trust in the chemical industry." Tracy says that the company has been able to tap the business and technical expertise of industry veterans, who have been very willing to share advice and help make connections. "For a small company trying to navigate the commercial world, the help and advice we've gotten about everything from supply chains to offtake agreements has been invaluable."
Tracy is now involved in formalizing such mentorship opportunities. As a board member of the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance, he is working with colleagues to consolidate the State's chemistry brain trust and make it available to small companies. "With small companies like ours, no one questions that the technology is great, but no one has a clue about how to protect intellectual property or talk to businesses," he says. "All that understanding and knowledge is here, and there are so many people who are willing to share what they know. I genuinely believe it's what makes Delaware the best place to capitalize on the sustainable chemical industry in the U.S."