InterviewProspects good for white biotechnology - DSM

03 June 2009 16:03  [Source: ICIS news]

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LONDON (ICIS news)--Technology, political will and consumer awareness is now sufficient to allow white biotechnology to finally fulfil its potential, an executive from Dutch chemicals group DSM said on Wednesday.

“I think that the technology is finally there. That is probably the most pivotal thing but on top of that, the political environment is very favourable in the US and Europe but even in China right now,” said Volkert Claassen, DSM’s head of white biotechnology.

“You also see that consumers are much more interested in this whole opportunity; there is a lot of awareness that biodegradable products are important,” he added.

White – or industrial – biotechnology is the use of living cells or enzymes to create products that would typically require petroleum-based feedstocks. White biotech can therefore reduce pollution and waste, while minimising energy and raw material use.

Although its development was clearly more of a challenge for companies in the current financial climate, he said, it was important not to lose sight of the fundamental issues that would remain after the crisis.

Claassen pointed specifically to the emergence of the middle classes in India, China and other developing countries that were chasing better living standards and would put further strain on resources.

“I think white biotech can play a very good role. It’s bio-based so it’s not competing with oil and I think with the concerns we have around climate change it is a really good contributor to a much more healthy world,” he said.

“It is challenging certainly for chemical companies that are faced with really reduced demand in the automotive industry and construction, but I have to say that companies that have prepared well for this are actually benefiting now.”

Global consultancy McKinsey & Co. forecasts that white biotech chemical sales would grow from €100bn ($143bn) in 2007, to in excess of €150bn by 2012. Around 5% of chemicals are currently bio-based, with this expected to double over that same period, said Claassen.

Nevertheless, the sector had far greater potential, he added. Some 75% of all chemicals handled by the Port of Rotterdam harbour, for example, could eventually be bio-based. “Will that happen in its totality? Probably not…but it clearly shows that we can go much further than 10%,” he said.

For now, DSM – along with its French partner Roquette – remained focused on the development of a demonstration plant that would produce succinic acid derived from starch.

Claassen said that the facility in Lestrem, France, was scheduled to come on stream later this year with the first material emerging in the first quarter 2010.

Initially, the plant’s annual output would amount to only a few hundred tonnes, although this could soon be ramped up to “more significant” volumes. Claassen suggested that decisions would be made in the second half of 2010.

“Realistically we need at least minimum of one year to seek responses from market,” he said. “At some point you need to bite the bullet, and say okay, we have some positive responses from the market and you need to scale this up. That’s another challenge in the current economical times.”

Succinic acid has numerous applications in the pharmaceuticals, detergents, food and automotive sectors. It is also as an intermediate for the production of some high-performance polymers.

View DSM's key biotech facilities in a larger map

($1 = €0.70)

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By: Andy Brice
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