As the earth’s climate changes, many experts foresee a growing market for products that can be manufactured in environmentally friendly ways. Jeff Lievense has spent his entire career developing technologies to manufacture chemicals in ways that have minimal impact on the planet - and he believes we’ll soon see dramatic advances in this field. Lievense is an expert in microbial fermentation, the process of using fermentation to supply a wide variety of chemical products, from fuels to plastics. His employer, Genomatica, is a San Diego biotech firm specializing in using sustainable methods to produce a range of chemicals. Lievense also helps teach an annual UC San Diego Extension workshop on microbial fermentation. “I hope to live another 50 years just to see how this all turns out,” the 62-year-old engineer says.
Why is the work you do important?
My professional passion is industrial biotechnology, which has been the focus of my entire career. I feel what I’m doing is important because it contributes new “biobased” technologies that will ultimately enable human beings to live on this earth in a more sustainable manner, and if we have a healthier Earth we’re going to have healthier and better lives for all the people that live on Earth.
What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?
The biggest changes are in biology, with exponential growth in the tools for modifying microbes, directing their metabolism to make a very wide range of biobased chemicals, including fuels, even plastics. This enables economical production of a wide range of products that were really out of the reach of industrial biotechnology until genetic engineering and automation came along. We’re still early on in that revolution so I struggle to imagine what that technology will be like in 50 years, but it will be remarkable. As an example, the chemical 1,3-propanediol (PDO) could not be produced at a low enough cost from petroleum, but since 2006 it’s produced economically by fermentation. PDO is used to make a different kind of polyester that has superior properties, including softness and stain resistance, to conventional polyester. Today you can find the biobased polyester in carpeting sold in stores across the United States by one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers. Another example is farnesene, a chemical that occurs naturally in the skin of apples. A derivative of farnesene also happens to be an excellent diesel fuel. There’s now, since 2013, a manufacturing plant in Brazil owned by an American company that uses fermentation to convert sugar to farnesene. The resulting diesel is being used to fuel buses in Brazil. Farnesene is also a building block for making a wide range of other products. Another formulation is used as jet fuel. Yet another farnesene derivative has a completely different application as a skin moisturizer used in cosmetics. Lastly, the company I work for, Genomatica, has developed a low-cost fermentation process to make 1,4-butanediol (BDO), an established large-volume chemical. BDO and its derivatives are used for producing plastics, solvents, electronic chemicals and elastic fibers for the packaging, automotive, textile, and sports and leisure industries. The first biobased BDO plant using Genomatica technology will begin operating later this year. Biobased products like PDO, farnesene and BDO were only dreams a few years ago. Now they’re realities thanks to advances in biology. This is only the beginning.
What’s the next big thing?
After decades of government and private investment, there are now four second-generation ethanol biofuel plants in the U.S. that have just started operating. One in Florida uses yard waste as the feedstock; three plants in Iowa use corn stalks, leaves, and cobs (i.e., the non-edible parts). These are the first 2nd-gen demonstration plants in the United States. There are more in Europe, South America and Asia. Some of these are likely to be successful, sparking a transformation in transportation fuels and chemicals driven by low-cost, renewable fermentation sugars from non-food sources. With proven technology at scale, massive investments will follow in optimized, full-scale plants around the world to produce large quantities of low-cost transportation fuels and chemicals that are truly sustainable. Stay tuned; it will play out over the next five to 10 years.
How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?
There were no biopharmaceuticals until the early 1980s when the first such product, human insulin, was introduced. We’re now 34 years later and it’s huge – 20 percent of the global pharmaceutical business and growing at twice the rate of conventional pharma. San Diego has emerged as a major hub for the biopharmaceuticals, both large and small companies. One could imagine that 34 years from now San Diego will be a major center for industrial biotechnology as well.
Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?
In 50 years, I think about half of industrial chemicals and liquid transportation fuels will be produced via biotechnology globally. Biobased chemicals are already about 10 percent of global chemical production, and biofuels make up about 10 percent of U.S. transportation fuels. So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to grow that to 50 percent over the next 50 years. If it happens, industrial biotechnology will have made a significant contribution to global climate stabilization. As far as I’m concerned, that is job No. 1 – healthy climate, healthy planet, healthy people.
Learn more about our Microbial Fermentation workshop and explore the variety of Science and Environment & Sustainability courses and programs we offer every quarter. In addition, see other quality programs on UCSD-TV about biofuels and other cutting edge topics.