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The dirty secret of almost anything made out of plastic — from your soda bottle to a trash bag — is that there’s a good chance it was made with ingredients that come from crude oil. A startup named Siluria is looking to swap out that crude oil with natural gas, which could make plastics and chemicals just a little less terrible for the planet.
If you’ve heard of startup Siluria before it’s probably because of the people involved with the company. Former Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy is on the board, the core tech came out of the labs of well-known MIT scientist Angela Belcher, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s fund also backed the firm. But the six-year-old company could be on the cusp of finally breaking out, thanks to a new partnership with the U.S. arm of massive Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem.
Siluria is building its first demonstration plant at one of Braskem’s factories in Texas, which could be ready as soon as the end of 2014. The demo plant will convert the methane in Braskem’s natural gas pipeline into the core ingredient in plastic. Braskem is also exploring ways that it could buy the ingredient from Siluria tech-enabled plants, or it could license the technology for its own deployment.
So, what exactly is Siluria doing? The startup has developed a process that turns the methane in natural gas into chemicals like ethylene, which is the key ingredient in plastics. The startup’s tech can also turn natural gas into propylene, another key ingredient in a variety of products like antifreeze and deodorant.
Siluria uses a genetically-engineered virus to create a tangle of nanowires, which can be use to kick off a chemical process that converts methane into these various chemical compounds. In contrast, the most common way to make ethylene today is to use super-hot steam to break down crude oil into the simple ethylene molecule. But that traditional way is much more energy and carbon emissions intensive, and of course, uses the volatile and controversial ingredient oil.
For awhile now, large chemical and plastics manufacturers have been looking for ways to make greener plastics and chemicals from natural materials, instead of oil. Yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but it’s cleaner than oil, and also now very abundant and low cost from within the U.S.
Teaming up with Braskem is important for Siluria because it could enable the startup’s tech to finally be developed at a commercial scale. Working with large corporations is a key way for materials-based, and commodity-driven, cleantech startups to reach commercialization. Many of them have realized this throughout the years, and in recent years more and more corporations have been interested in working with young, but risky, cleantech innovators. Still, selling a low margin commodity at a large scale is an enormous task for a venture-backed startup.
Siluria has raised at least $63 million from investors including Kleiner Perkins, Alloy Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Altitude Life Sciences Ventures, The Wellcome Trust, Lux Capital and Presidio Ventures (part of Sumitomo Corp.). [Disclosure: Alloy Ventures is also an investor in Gigaom].