The partners say that BioIsoprene, as they call the biotech isoprene, could make the tire and rubber industry less dependent on petroleum-derived products. "Since synthetic rubber is a critical component to our products, we are very excited to be working on this renewable alternative with Genencor," says Jean-Claude Kihn, Goodyear's chief technology officer.
In the U.S. most isoprene is a by-product of the ethylene industry, according to the market research firm SRI Consulting. Goodyear is one of the world's largest consumers of isoprene, using it to produce polyisoprene, considered the synthetic version of natural rubber. Genencor figures that the world market for isoprene is worth as much as $2 billion per year.
Although they are only now disclosing the project, the companies say they have been working together for more than a year. Over the next three years, Genencor says, it will invest about $50 million to further develop its microbial fermentation technology and scale up production. The company, a subsidiary of Denmark's Danisco, expects to be technically ready by 2010 and to commission a large-scale plant by 2012.
Biobased chemicals are a popular research topic these days, but few have been successfully commercialized. Genencor can claim participation in one such product: DuPont's Sonora propanediol, which is made in Loudon, Tenn., out of corn sugar. Genencor is also working with DuPont on cellulose-based ethanol.