AUSTRALIA: Amyris looking to brew its renewable ingredients in Queensland

Published: 08/11/2017, 9:34:19 AM

A US biotechnology company is on a quest to make the world more renewable, and it wants to use Australia's sugar to do it, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Amyris was founded by a group of scientists at UC Berkley in California in 2003, when it was asked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make a sustainable replacement for anti-malarial drug artemisinin.

It is now developing sustainable replacements for ingredients that used to come from petroleum or rare animals and plants, and uses milled sugar in the process.

In an exclusive interview with the ABC, investor relations and corporate communications director Peter DeNardo said the company was looking to expand operations into Queensland.

"Much like people have been brewing beer or making wine or bread for thousands of years utilising yeast and some type of feed stock or sugar source, we are in many ways brewing renewable ingredients," he said. "[It's] for innovative companies that want to create high performance products that are better for consumers and better for the planet.

"Where a partner begins working with us they are trying to solve a supply chain constraint, or they're having difficulty sourcing supply because of sustainability issues or volatility in pricing of that supply."

After starting in pharmaceuticals the company researched biofuels, where it developed a yeast strain called farnesene, which is a flexible hydrocarbon that can be engineered into diesel or jet fuel.

But when the market for biofuels collapsed, the company diversified its focus.

It now hopes to replace ingredients used in specialty chemicals, flavours and fragrances, cosmetics ingredients and pharmaceuticals that are sourced from fossil fuels or rare plants and animals with plant-based, sugar-derived sustainable alternatives.

Essentially, farnesene eats sugar, and DeNardo said Queensland was one of the best places to get it.

"While our organisms could use alternative feed stocks, what we found is that utilising sugar is very cost effective, it's very renewable ... certainly readily available and sustainable," he said. "We follow a number of sustainable practices in terms of our manufacturing as well, to really sort of walk the walk and talk the talk."

The company's plant at Brotas in Brazil has reached capacity, necessitating the search for a new site.

DeNardo said Queensland emerged as the leader due to its stable sugar industry and proximity to Asian markets.

"We certainly use up a lot of sugar there [Brazil]. We have more demand than we can meet based on our projected pipeline of business," he said.

"It is imperative that we find some additional manufacturing resources.

"We are in a position where if there's a suitable location to produce additional ingredients for our partners cost effectively and with local support, that's what we will need to do."

Unlike other biorefineries that make use of cane by-products such as fibre or bagasse, the Amyris method makes use of milled sugar.

"The sugar is crushed and pumped as a syrup directly into our factory," DeNardo said. "Yeast, if you feed it sugar, it's going to create ethanol. What we are doing is altering the bio pathway within that yeast organism to cause it to produce exactly the ingredient that we desire."

DeNardo said the company was now conducting a feasibility study to determine where to build the plant, subject to finance.

"Amyris has had a long-term, multi-year relationship with Queensland, originally in biofuels," he said.

"There is a moving trend towards creating bio-based ingredients as global populations soar.

"There's a growing middle class in China that have a vast appetite for everything from food to fragrances, and that's really straining resources.

"This is the next industrial wave, what we would call a bio-industrial revolution ... Queensland seems to have some very beneficial properties that might go hand in hand with those plans." The project is supported by the University of Queensland and the Queensland Government through its Biofutures Acceleration Program.

DeNardo said the plant was at least three years away.

He said while the methods were disruptive, the company was committed to improving the health of the planet, and Queensland was shaping up to be a big part of those plans.

"[There are] so many applications from solvents, tyres, health and nutrition, personal care all the way to biopharma and drug discovery," he said.

"That innovation will continue as there are new developments in the business and new opportunities for Amyris to make a positive change on the planet."