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MIT’s Alumnus Makes Petroleum Products Alternatives with Synthetic Biology

Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf is a law graduate and freelance journalist with a keen interest in tech reporting.

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Visolis, an MIT’s founded alumnus startup, is combining synthetic biology with chemical catalysis to reinvent the way the world makes things and reduce gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The startup harnessed synthetic biology to make sustainable alternatives to petroleum products and is currently working to decarbonize the production of everything from rubber to jet fuel.

Founded by Deepak Dugar SM ’11, MBA ’13, Ph.D. ’13, Visolis uses a microbe to ferment biomass waste like wood chips and create a molecular building block called mevalonic acid – which is more sustainably producing everything from car tires and cosmetics to aviation fuels by tweaking the chemical processes involved to make different byproducts.

“We started with [the rubber component] isoprene as the main molecule we produce [from mevalonic acid], but we’ve expanded our platform with this unique combination of chemistry and biology that allows us to decarbonize multiple supply chains very rapidly and efficiently,” Dugar explains. “Imagine carbon-negative yoga pants. We can make that happen. Tires can be carbon-negative, personal care can lower its footprint — and we’re already selling into personal care. So in everything from personal care to apparel to industrial goods, our platform is enabling decarbonization of manufacturing.”

Dugar studied the economics of employing microbes to produce high-octane gas additives for his Ph.D. He also took classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management on sustainability and entrepreneurship, including the particularly influential Climate and Energy Ventures course. The experience inspired him to start the company.

After reviewing recent developments in synthetic biology and performing some calculations based on fundamental principles, Dugar came to the conclusion that a microbial approach to cleaning up the manufacture of rubber was practical. He collaborated with colleagues at MIT to test the theory and took part in the MIT Clean Energy Prize.

Less than two years later, Dugar was able to create a microbe that met 80% of his requirements for producing the intermediate chemical mevalonic acid by using synthetic biology and engineering principles like design-for-scale. From there, he created a chemical catalysis method to change mevalonic acid into isoprene, which is the primary substance in natural rubber. Since then, Visolis has obtained further chemical conversion patents for the production of textiles, plastics, and aviation fuel from mevalonic acid.

“We’re working with leading companies to help them decarbonize aviation,” Dugar says. “If you look at the lifecycle of fuel, the current petroleum-based approach is we dig out hydrocarbons from the ground and burn it, emitting CO2 into the air. In our process, we take plant matter, which affixes to CO2 and captures renewable energy in those bonds, and then we transfer that into aviation fuel plus things like synthetic rubber, yoga pants, and other things that continue to hold the carbon. So, our factories can still operate at net zero carbon emissions.”

Dugar intends to demonstrate the effectiveness of the company’s method in further emissions-intensive industries. Visolis has already collaborated with some of the prominent consumers of isoprene, a precursor to rubber, in the world. The startup is already generating millions of dollars in revenue, and Dugar says his goal is to scale the company rapidly now that its platform molecule has been validated.

SourceMIT News


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