Are chemical producers engaged in the drive to use green chemicals?

Riding the green wave?

11 May 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Green chemistry is on the rise, fueled by new technologies and a drive for sustainability. An ICIS/Genomatica survey will gauge the state of play

The recent development of a bio-manufacturing route to methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), a widely used industrial solvent, expands the potential for companies to replace oil-derived products in their operations and products.

The news, from California, US-based technology start-up Genomatica, is one example of the chemicals the company is developing. It follows its breakthrough with a microorganism that can produce 1,4-butanediol (BDO).

Both routes use plant sugars as a raw material and produce chemicals that can be used as replacements for their oil-based equivalents. Such sustainable chemistry is an area of growing interest, driven by companies' desires to improve their sustainability and move away from oil-based materials to renewable feedstocks. Use of "sustainable chemicals" also offers the potential to reduce energy usage and carbon emissions, and to protect against future tightness of oil supplies and resulting higher oil prices.

Christophe Schilling, newly appointed CEO and cofounder of Genomatica, believes several waves of sustainability thinking are sweeping across chemical producers, with some companies further advanced than others.

"In the first wave, companies are taking a keen interest in improving their sustainability, mainly through looking at energy usage and their carbon footprint. In the second wave, they are examining the products themselves, and beginning to ask whether they can produce materials in a more sustainable manner from renewable feedstocks."

In this second area, he adds, it is incumbent on technology companies such as Genomatica to show the way and prove what can be done. "I believe there is an appetite out there for simple, effective technologies that address the need for renewable alternatives."

In some instances, companies are well on their way to developing new sustainable products and practices. There are already several technologies and products on the market, such as the Ingeo polylactic acid (PLA) polymers from NatureWorks, a joint venture of US agribusiness Cargill and Japanese chemical company Teijin, and the bio-derived Mirel polymers produced by biosciences company Metabolix and ingredients, feeds and biofuels firm Archer Daniels Midland, both US. These new biodegradable polymers are worthwhile endeavors, points out Schilling, but there are significant challenges associated with creating a market for these new products.

Genomatica, he explains, is interested in finding bio-routes to chemicals that can be used as straight replacements to the established oil-derived products, as exemplified by its BDO and MEK developments. US chemical giant DuPont and UK foods group Tate & Lyle'sZemea bio-derived propanediol is another example of this approach, as is Brazilian petrochemical group Braskem's bio-based polyethylene (PE).

"These two approaches [to develop new end products or chemically identical alternatives] are very different but both have sustainability potential." In the latter, cost-effectiveness is all important, stresses Schilling. He believes a 25% cost advantage is needed to drive uptake of these new-route products.

Genomatica uses a proprietary integrated technology platform. This uses sophisticated computer modeling technology, called SimPheny, to guide the design of genetically modified microorganisms so that they can produce specific end-products. Once an organism has been identified and engineered, the company has the technology to improve yield and productivity and the process engineering to scale up to commercial volumes.

At this point, as with BDO, Genomatica seeks to license the technology to chemical producers. How quickly the technologies are taken up depends on the market and the stage producers have reached in their progress to sustainability. Schilling admits that the recession has probably put adoption of bio-based materials on the back burner for many companies. But, he stresses, "the industry needs breakthroughs and a few more successes."

ICIS/GENOMATICA SUSTAINABLE CHEMICALS SURVEY

This is your chance to have your say on sustainable chemicals. Simply fill out the online questionnaire. It should take only a few minutes.

The results will be aggregated and analyzed by ICIS and reported in the magazine at the end of June. To encourage you to take part, ICIS is offering an iPod Touch to the person whose name is drawn first from the list of those completing the survey.

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By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214



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