Infraleuna spearheads German drive for alternative feedstocks

Germany gears up for biotech future

25 June 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Correction: In the story headlined: "Infraleuna spearheads German drive for alternative feedstocks," in the end note, please read: instead of A corrected story follows.

With €50m funding in place and start-up scheduled for 2011, the white biotech research center at the Leuna chemical site looks set to be a major force in Europe's alternative feedstock innovation drive

Consultant's corner
John Stokoe/Euro Swiss Research

ACCESS TO scale-up facilities is crucial for utilization of renewable feedstocks for the chemical industry of the future.

The idea to produce today's chemicals, as well as new ones replacing those that are not cost and eco-efficient from renewable resources with the help of industrial biotechnology seems to be quite appealing to a majority of players in the chemical industry. This idea, combined with the concept of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and being sustainable at the same time makes renewable resources even more appealing to all stakeholders.

Consumers seem to embrace "green" products as well, and would adopt them readily if they were available at competitive prices and made from materials that are not used for the food or feed chain.

The producers of chemicals and products would abandon their long-standing manufacturing processes using fossil raw materials and energy if the economics were attractive - in other words, if a number of criteria were met: low capital investment, funding, optimized and innovative biotechnology processes and competitive renewable feedstocks.

So chemical producers and their service partners such as Andreas Hiltermann, managing director of Germany's InfraLeuna chemical site, owner and operator of the infrastructure facilities at chemical site Leuna, ask: "How can we continue to improve the profitability and sustainability of our manufacturing sites and plants and manufacture innovative, cost-efficient and sustainable products in the future?"

This was the challenge that he asked his site development team to address a couple of years ago. Discussions were held with the larger of the 100 companies on the Leuna chemical site, which, being well integrated in the Leipzig-Bitterfeld-Halle chemical triangle, plays a major role in chemical and oil derivatives manufacturing at regional, national and European level.

In addition, talks were held with a substantial number of external companies, universities, and other players in the field. The conclusions were that a key success factor to answer their CEO's challenge was to implement a "scaling-up" platform for innovative biotechnology processes utilizing renewable resources that is freely accessible to all interested stakeholders.

Contacts were set up with local and federal government to sound out their interest and support for such a venture. At the same time, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (FhG), the Munich-based research and development (R&D) institution, was looking at ways to expand its work in the industrial biotechnology field from lab to pilot scale on an industrial site. It was a nice fit that FhG was looking for a chemical site that was open to all interested partners where the technology breakthroughs could be scaled up from pilot to industrial scale.

This approach would also draw on the expertise and work carried out by a number of different Fraunhofer institutes all over Germany. "We want now to test laboratory-developed procedures and processes that are relevant for the industry. To do this, you need the infrastructure and facilities," explains Professor Thomas Hirth from the Fraunhofer-Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) in Stuttgart.

On April 3, the Chemical and Biotechnological Process Centre (CBP) was officially launched. The concept goes some way towards answering the call made in a recent interview where Dirk Carrez, director for industrial biotechnology policy at biotechnology trade group EuropaBio said: "We need three or four big demonstration biorefineries in Europe to remain competitive with the initiatives in the US and China".

The CBP's strategic goal is to offer access to non-food-chain renewable feedstocks such as straw, wood, starch, oilseeds and algae and respective transformation processes to existing, on-site refinery and chemical companies, as well as third-party off-site companies, R&D institutions, universities and others. With these highly innovative processes at hand, companies can begin to replace their traditional fossil-based ones and produce existing and new commodity and specialty chemicals, with less environmental impact and increased sustainability.

The CBP will be a collaborative effort between Fraunhofer, InfraLeuna, on-site and third-party industry partners including small and medium-sized enterprises as well as established players, universities and feedstock suppliers, many of whom are located close to the site in this agriculture-rich area. Fraunhofer will be the owner, operator and R&D partner of the CBP.

The first six R&D programs have already been initiated; involving the financial contribution of several federal ministries. Projects underway include companies with production units on site, third-party companies, local farmers, and universities, currently totalling around 40 partners. A wide range of renewable resources will be utilized in these projects for the development of improved and new chemical products. The scale-up of production processes to relevant industrial manufacturing dimensions via industrial biotech and established chemical methods is a key element to all activities.

InfraLeuna will be responsible for the supply of services and media to the CBP. It will ensure the continued liaison and support with the government and state, as well as integration with EU efforts in the biotechnology field. It will also be driving worldwide marketing programs and seeking further participation from capital sources.

The CBP offers significant time, investment, and cost savings compared with a stand-alone pilot plant since it is a readily available, subsidized, fully equipped facility. Also, its location on "neutral" ground, without the domination of a single industry player, offers extensive synergies between companies located on and off-site, as well as national and international R&D initiatives. It will facilitate strong integration along the value chain from raw materials to products on a single production site exploiting its advantage of scale.

The CBP's founders aim for it to be a center of excellence for all parties involved in the industrial biotechnology field for collaborative development, innovation and industrial implementation. The CBP will lead to the creation of at least 30 high-quality jobs over the next few years.

The CBP is targeting development of new products, platform chemicals, intermediates, specialty polymers and, more specifically, bio-based polymers and waxes, lubricants, resins and amines.

The initial CBP capital investment is budgeted at around €50m ($70m). It has been funded by the state of Saxony-Anhalt, which will contribute €20m. FhG will contribute €10m via government funding and industry partners such as InfraLeuna will also participate. Remaining funds will be made available through federal ministries.

With the CBP launched in April, groundbreaking is expected in 2010, and the start-up date for the CBP itself is scheduled for 2011. Design of the facility is underway and once it is finalized by the end of the year, requests for quotations will go out to the equipment and construction suppliers to erect the buildings, laboratories and pilot plants. In the meantime, existing laboratory facilities at the chemical site Leuna, and within the Fraunhofer infrastructure, will be made available on a temporary basis to launch the project work.

Expansion of the CBP may be necessary sooner rather than later, as there have already been a large number of requests for projects and participation. With the Leuna site having unoccupied land available that could be used for the expansion of the CBP and any resulting new industrial facilities, this demand could be satisfied easily.

"The integration of industrial biotechnology developed at the CBP into our existing value chains on-site and at third parties will make a real step forward in a renewable based chemical industry," concludes Hiltermann.

Martin Naundorf and Markus Wolperdinger contributed to this article.

John Stokoe is the managing director of Euro Swiss Research and past president of Union Carbide Europe, in Geneva, Switzerland:

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