Rice University professor touts methane feedstock and smaller-scale manufacturing


In Texas, Rice University professor Ramon Gonzalez is working to advance biomanufacturing technologies using methane commonly flared by petrochemical plants as a feedstock.

In a paper published recently by Science, Gonzalez says methane as a feedstock in biomanufacturing has been an untapped resource that advances in metabolic engineering, genomics, and industrial process design will push closer to adoption.

“The industrial [of biotechnology] side aims at generating molecules that are produced these days from many feedstocks, including oil and natural gas,” Gonzalez says. “What has not been explored much in this space is what biology brings to the table, regardless of whether you use starting materials that are renewable or not.”

Renewable materials, like sugar or agricultural waste, have been the traditional feedstocks for biobased production. But methane can be transformed biotechnologically into several useful chemicals, including methanol, ethylene, propylene, butadiene, xylene, benzene, and toluene.

Gonzalez also counters the notion that bigger is better when competing with traditional petrochemicals that employ massive economies of scale.

“You don’t need to go big,” he says. “This is an area that almost nobody explores. Actually, companies are doing the contrary: They are saying, ‘Let’s go big with biology’ and forcing it to do things that are not a natural fit for biomanufacturing. That’s not necessarily what biology is good at.”