Informex exhibitors focus on green chemistry

Profiles in sustainability

24 February 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

At last month's InformexUSA, five companies showed how to combine green chemistry with sound economics

AS MANY chemical manufacturers are discovering, sustainability is not only a touchstone of environmentalism, but also an increasingly significant consideration in procurement decisions - and therefore another opportunity for differentiation through innovation and added value.

 Rex Features
Sustainability in manufacturing means minimizing negative environmental impact and conserving energy and natural resources, without sacrificing safety and economic viability. These are straightforward aims that can be achieved in a great variety of ways, as 16 companies showed last month at InformexUSA, the annual fine and specialty chemicals show, this year held in San Francisco, California.

Each of these firms was recognized by Profiles in Sustainability, a program sponsored by InformexUSA. Five were presented with a special award as innovators: DSM; IoLiTec; Lonza; Segetis; and The WERCS. Here is a brief look at their accomplishments.

For six years, Dutch life and materials science company DSM has led the chemical sector in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index owing to wide-ranging efforts to embed sustainainability metrics into process design and manufacturing. Process intensification has played a key role, particularly in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, where high product value tends to deflect pressures that might drive more efficient resource consumption. Microreactor technology is a perfect embodiment of this strategy, which entails dramatically reducing the size of unit operations.

DSM has been developing microreactor technology for more than a decade, but first conducted trials six years ago. In 2005, it conducted its first full-scale campaign of a non-good manufacturing practice (GMP) process for pharmaceuticals, and by 2009, it completed a full-scale GMP campaign.

"From early on, development has been driven by solid business interests to either improve on a product or to make its production feasible. We knew the payback time at the moment we spent the money. This helped us to get commitment throughout the company," says a DSM spokesman.

About 10% of DSM processes in pharma currently "profit substantially" from microreactors, he adds. "Implementation of a microreactor process is especially favored if we get stuck in process development using a conventional reactor because of safety, environmental concerns and production costs. This may also be the case if we see that a certain apparatus limits further increases in productivity of a running process."

Ionic liquids have amazing properties. Salts that melt below 100˚C, they feature high thermal and electrochemical stability; electrical conductivity; negligible vapor pressure; tunable miscibility; and non-flammability. In many cases, these properties can be adjusted by rational design of the cationic moiety or choice of anion, so that ionic liquids are often referred to as "designer solvents."

Initially regarded mainly as green alternative solvents for catalysis, ionic liquids have proven their usefulness in energy conversion and storage, lubricants, electrolytes, solvents and many other applications. Unfortunately, cost has always been a hurdle to commercializing any process that employs ionic liquids, says Thomas Schubert, CEO of IoLiTec, a producer of ionic liquids based in Germany.

"On the other hand, if we compare ionic liquids with other 'common' solvents or electrolytes, it is the negligible vapor pressure that makes the difference," he notes. "This enables [relatively] easy regeneration of used ionic liquids. Putting these two aspects together led directly to [the] concept of renting or leasing ionic liquids, which was originally inspired by the idea of comparable expensive, but easily recyclable chemicals."

The viability of the model has been proven in a government-funded project involving the electrodeposition of aluminum, and Schubert says that IoLiTec already has a couple of confidential customer projects employing the model.

"Fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals have become industries of waste," observes Dominique Roberge, a microreactor specialist in process research at Swiss life science company Lonza. For each kilogram of product, 25kg of waste are produced, he notes. "These industries remain burdened with stoichiometric technologies that generate large quantities of waste. Low-process efficiencies are exacerbated by poor track records in product quality, far exceeding that found in any other manufacturing industry," he adds.

Lonza's response has been an initiative, begun in 2003, aimed at bringing pharmaceutical production technologies in line with modern, sustainable chemical and engineering practices. The result has been increasing adoption of two technologies: continuous processing and microreactors.

"Flow chemistry has an impressive track record in stabilizing quality, as well as reducing manpower [hence labor costs] through higher automation," Roberge comments. Microreactor technology, he continues, "offers modular, standardized plant techniques, safer and controllable access to highly reactive chemistries, process intensification, accelerated throughput, higher flexibility, faster change-over and cleaning, reduced capital outlay, and greater long-term sustainability."

Working in collaboration with microreactor suppliers, Lonza has developed its own microreactor technology, which can be scaled without resorting to "numbering up," or running multiple reactors in parallel. It successfully implemented the technology in 2006 and, in 2009, used it to produce tons of material under current GMP conditions.

"We believe our achievement is unique and will contribute to a greener, more sustainable pharmaceutical industry," says Roberge.

Nearly 6bn barrels of oil are consumed each year by 30 to 50 synthetic pathways, yielding the $2 trillion (€1.5 trillion)-worth of chemical compounds that "form the material backbone of modern society and appear in end-products that range from bottles to adhesives, cell phones, shoes and building materials," says Snehal Desai, business vice president at Segetis.

The US-based technology start-up firm aims to interrupt this manufacturing paradigm through the cost-competitive production of a versatile monomer platform - levulinic ketals - based on levulinic acid obtained from cellulosic biomass and biobased hydroxyl compounds.

"A thermochemical conversion transforms these low-value inputs into novel and highly functional materials that deliver performance desired by multiple market sectors," says Desai. Because the technology does not rely on fermentation, capital needs are lower than competing bio platforms, he adds, and the time to market is reduced.

Desai points to several factors favoring the platform - volatile oil prices, the paucity of materials with innovative functionality and performance attributes, growing consumer demand for green alternatives, and related regulatory pressures.

"Higher-value opportunities for Segetis' levulinic ketals exist where one or more of their intrinsic traits - water-compatibility, bio-derived, thermal stability and acid lability - can improve the efficacy of the final article," he notes. Backers include Khosla Ventures and DSM Venturing.

Retailers want to satisify growing consumer demand for more sustainable products, but how are they to do so? For the answer, retail giant Wal-Mart turned to The WERCS, a US-based company that provides software and services for chemical compliance assessment and hazard communication. The result of this collaboration was WERCSmart (Supplier Merchandiser and Retailer Technologies), a systematic program to obtain standardized information on products that contain chemicals.

"This program can provide the retailer with critical regulatory and sustainability data, all while acting as a third party to protect the suppliers' confidential data," says Lou Desorbo, president of The WERCS.

"Through this web-based supplier portal, each supplier, regardless of geography, is required to provide a standard set of product-related documents and data in order to obtain shelf space," says Desorbo.

Building on the information accumulated with WERCSmart, a tool called GreenWERCS has been developed that analyzes the composition of individual products from ingredient data entered by manufacturers. Using a pre-identified scoring and weighting algorithm, the tool can establish whether the chemical ingredients of a product include persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances; carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants; and potential hazardous waste.

"What makes WERCSmart and GreenWERCS unique is that they provide a proven scalable solution to access and analyze this data, which ultimately helps to drive greener chemistry," says Desorbo.

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By: Clay Boswell
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