Breakthroughs

Safer peroxide recipe takes CRISPR gene science, adds sugar

Solugen
Ode to Clean wipes are made from Bioperoxide, created from plant sugars.

This is the latest in a regular series exploring early-stage technologies and scientific developments that could play a role in corporate solutions to climate change. (The previous installments are here.) Email ideas and pitches to [email protected].

Most of us associate the potential of CRISPR gene "editing" with advances in health sciences, but the technology also has serious implications for the future of green chemistry.

Biotech startup Solugen is on the forefront of those possibilities — starting with hydrogen peroxide made out of plant materials. Its cofounders, CEO Gaurab Chakrabarti and CTO Sean Hunt, started the company last year to commercialize an enzyme discovered by Chakrabarti during his graduate studies of pancreatic cancer at the University of Texas Southwestern.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The system has been lauded for the potential to treat diseases in a radically new way, by tinkering with the human genome.

The process developed by Solugen produces hydrogen peroxide — widely used for bleaching, cleansing and etching functions in industrial processes at paper mills, wastewater treatment plants and semiconductor factories, in addition to its medical applications — by using CRISPR/Cas9 principles and a bioreactor developed by Hunt. In late October, the company disclosed it has received $4.4 million in seed funding from Y Combinator, Refactor Capital, Liquid 2 Ventures, Social Capital Partnerships and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Solugen is touting its approach as a less dangerous, less emissions-belching way to make hydrogen peroxide when compared with anthraquinone methods in place since the early 1940s. In high densities, the substance (produced the traditional way) can be extremely unstable and has been known to result in catastrophic explosions during both the production and transportation process.

U.S. sales of hydrogen peroxide were close to $3.9 billion in 2015, according to data estimates by Global Market Insights. The sector is projected to grow by 5 percent by 2024.

"Hydrogen peroxide is recognized worldwide as a safe and effective cleaning ingredient but is incredibly dangerous and energy-intensive to create and transport," Chakrabarti said in a statement. "Sean and I wanted to not only develop a technology that reduces the waste and pollution in the product process, but also create a purer product that would be clean and safe in our homes with our own families."  

Transforming the peroxide manufacturing process

The inputs for Solugen's manufacturing process seem markedly simple compared with the way that hydrogen peroxide is traditionally produced — it takes a combination of plant sugars, the company's proprietary enzymes, water and air. "The idea is to create it using materials not readily consumed by a human," Hunt said.

For example, in the United States, the solution might be made from corn husks, Africa might opt for sugar cane refuse and Chile might choose sugar beets.

In comparison, the inputs for the anthraquinone technique include flammable solvents, oxygen, hydrogen and methane gas, phosphates, quinones, petroleum substances and other catalysts, according to a comparison of the two methods found on Solugen's website. Plus, a facility producing 500 tons of hydrogen peroxide per day would emit roughly 600 tons of carbon dioxide, estimated Hunt.

Solugen, which splits its base between Philadelphia and Houston, isn't aiming to become a giant manufacturer over time. Rather, it's looking at ways to create a network of facilities that use its distillation recipe, so to speak.

"We don't want to be a manufacturing powerhouse; we want to help design and build," Hunt said.

Right now, Solugen is producing small batches of its product — Bioperoxide — with equipment it bought for $7,000 at a Home Depot. For a proof of concept, it has created consumer cleansing wipes, Ode to Clean, to draw attention to its approach. The seed round will enable Solugen to expand its production capacity tenfold, Hunt said.

Over time, the startup intends to explore the creation of enzymes that can be used in the production of other chemicals, the co-founders said.