Houston-Based Solugen Creates Carbon-Negative Chemicals Through Innovation in Everyday Chemistry

With a valuation of over $1.8 billion, the rapidly-growing company creates chemicals from sugar.

 
Chemicals; Carbon-negative
CTO Dr. Sean Hunt (left) and CEO Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti. // Credit: Solugen

Chemicals have long been a part of modern economic development and progress, from early cotton processing in the late 19th century to the mass production of chemicals and chemically-derived materials that followed the research and development driven by government spending during World War II. Companies like Dow, DuPont, and Hercules Powder had a majority of their revenue coming from government contracts to support the war effort; as World War II ended, it was time for the classic pivot and an entrance into the commercial market.


This progression in the chemical industry was fueled by petrochemicals and led to many advancements in materials we use every day, including plastics, polymers, and so much more. That legacy has made the chemicals industry the third largest contributor to global carbon emissions, according to the IEA.


Now, we enter a new age where everyday chemistry is carbon-neutral and made with sugar and enzymes.


A New Age for Chemicals


Houston-based Solugen, Fast Company's second most innovative company of 2022, has developed the first carbon-negative molecule factory that can scale to meet the world's needs. The company was founded by CEO Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and CTO Dr. Sean Hunt in 2016.


After being brought together by a poker group of medical students at the University of Texas Southwestern, Dr. Chakrabarti and Dr. Hunt combined their unique areas of expertise in biology, enzymes, novel metal catalysts, and industrial-scale synthesis. They developed the Bioforge ™, a 20,000-square-foot facility that produces 10,000 metric tons of chemicals annually using enzymes and corn syrup. The Bioforge facility is powered by renewable wind energy and leads to a carbon-negative final product.


"Our breakthroughs in enzyme and metal catalyst engineering allow us to produce chemicals in a more sustainable and profitable way. We can now deliver for our customers' performance benefits, cost savings, and most importantly, lower carbon footprints," Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, said.


How It Works

Solugen brings the best of biology and technology together, leveraging AI to engineer enzymes and metal catalysts that can bypass the limitations of traditional fermentation. Because of their revolutionary Bioforge facility and processes, Solugen can produce molecules at room temperature using bio-based feedstocks with no toxins and waste.

Their four inputs are sugars, water, catalysts, and air to generate a 90% yield with low heat, low energy, and no waste. Comparatively, when using traditional processes with petrochemicals, the average yield is only 60% and requires high heat, high energy, and waste.

At the center of the facility lies a 60-foot column home to the enzymes, the magicians behind the show. A mixture of corn syrup and deionized water enters the column's top and begins reacting with the enzymes. The reaction is fueled by Solugen's proprietary formulation of compressed air that creates wicked tiny bubbles. The corn syrup solution then travels through the column.


Once it reaches the bottom, the solution transforms into an intermediate material and is filtered through membranes to remove the enzymes before heading to its final stages of chemical synthesis. The material is mixed with more compressed air and pushed over Solugen's engineered metal catalysts, transforming the compound into the final product.


Solugen’s Final Product

The final product goes through an evaporation process to remove access water and create a concentration adequate for shipping. To achieve this, Solugen uses a 100% wind-powered mechanical vapor recompression evaporator that is 10x more efficient at generating steam than burning natural gas.

Finally, the product heads to storage tanks in an inert nitrogen atmosphere, keeping the product fresh and free of contaminants. For customers who want a solid final product, Solugen can use a crystallizer to make a solid crystalline product that can be stored in super-sacks or 50-pound bags.

Solugen’s process generates zero air or wastewater emissions from the four ingredients to the final output. It utilizes an interconnected closed drain system to create a feedback loop that continuously collects and reworks products without slowing operations or generating byproducts. Thanks to this technology, it can develop carbon-negative plant nutrients, cleaning materials, food additives, water treatment, and concrete.

The Future Is Sweet


Dr. Chakrabarti and Dr. Hunt have set lofty goals in their mission of decarbonizing the chemical industry. By 2030, the Houston company plans to remove the CO₂ equivalent of taking 2 million cars off of the road (10M tons of CO₂), replace 5 billion bottles worth of non-degradable plastic by becoming a significant producer of bio-plastic monomers, and have the capability to make 90% of all chemicals (i.e., resins, surfactants, and other essential chemicals).


In the Fall of 2021, Solugen raised $357 million to achieve those goals in a Series C led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC and Baillie Gifford. Other participants in the round included Temasek Holdings, BlackRock funds, Carbon Direct Capital Management, Refactor Capital, and Fifty Years.

The company will use the funds to expand its Bioforge technology platform and further expand its product portfolio to ensure the company satisfies its environmental goals by 2030. This cutting-edge platform has endless potential to innovate the chemical industry by introducing novel, bio-advantaged products and decarbonizing some of the largest carbon-emitting sectors.

"This fundraising round allows us to continue expanding the footprint of our Bioforge technology to give industries the products they need to reduce emissions in their existing supply chains, without compromising on performance or economics," Dr. Sean Hunt, CTO and co-founder of Solugen, said.


Thanks to these Texas Innovators, Solugen is forging a paradigm shift on chemicals and the chemistry of everyday life with a system that massively scales, is safe and natural, produces zero emissions, scales faster, and is cost-efficient.

 

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