INSIGHT: Taking strides in industrial biotechnology

14 May 2010 16:46  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

DuPont, Tate & Lyle bioplastics plantLONDON (ICIS news)--Industrial, or ‘white’ biotechnology is quietly making great strides and the use of alternative chemical feedstocks is growing fast.

The shift seems to have been made with the focus more on the needs of large markets rather than of niche products. True, there are neat routes to some low volume, high priced chemicals but in the great scheme of things it will be volumes that count if real inroads are to be made into the chemical industry’s use of fossil fuel-based feedstocks.

DuPont made a big claim on Tuesday this week. “We are connecting our core technology capabilities to markets that can be transformed by our science and this strategy is beginning to pay off,” DuPont’s chief innovation officer, said Thomas Connelly told financial analysts.

The company is making inroads into a renewables market estimated to be worth $150bn.

It wants its Applied BioSciences business to be producing revenues of $1bn (€800m) by 2015 and profits of $250m pre-tax.

The portfolio is “developing solutions to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and continues to be one of the most significant growth opportunities in the company’s history,” Connelly said.

President of the business portfolio Craig Binetti added flesh to the bones of Connelly’s statements when he said that DuPont was seeing rapid growth from its first suite of biomaterials products, and that the firm’s biofuels had advanced to the demonstration phase.

DuPont is applying first generation industrial biotechnology big time. It says that demand and adoption of its bio-based propane-diol (PDO) and Sorona bio-polymer are growing fast.

Joint venture Bio-PDO production with sugar producer Tate & Lyle is to be expanded by 35%.

DuPont says that its Sorona polymer operations have doubled since 2007 with four production facilities: two in the US and two in China where the market is growing fast.

The growth in output has been secured to match a 300% increase in the apparel business for the polymer in just two years and a doubling of demand in residential carpet.

It helps to have a broad portfolio, of course, and the chemicals giant has developed an omega-3 nutritional supplement that does not contain fish oil which is, it says “a vegetarian source of EPA - the long chain fatty acid shown to support heart health”.

Add to these products a BioSurfaces portfolio, Biomedical technologies and the company’s by no means insignificant presence in biofuels - it is developing with partners processes for cellulosic ethanol and biobutanol - and you get a feel for where it is heading.

It is not just a question, however, of exploiting first generation white biotechnology focused on food-related crops but of developing the science and technology base to move on to second generation processes which can utilise a much wider biomass resource.

There is little doubt that industrial biotechnology will play an increasingly important role in the industry’s future. And companies worldwide are latched on to the potential opportunities.

This was one of the sector’s most well-known figures, Reliance Industries CEO Mukesh Ambani, speaking at the Asia Petrochemical Industry Conference in Mumbai on Friday:

“We must adopt innovation as a way of life and inject new vibrancy in petrochemicals and chemicals by integrating technology, feedstock and markets. This means bio-polymers, bio-chemicals, biofuels, and electronic chemicals,” he said.

Netherlands-based chemicals specialty materials and life sciences producer DSM makes the valid point that the second generation industrial biotechnology challenges have to be cracked.

White biotechnology may already be delivering considerable financial and environmental savings but it is reliant on scarce resources of sugar and starch. The switch will have to be made to non-food related feedstock sources if disruptions to vitally important production chains and critical commodity prices are to be avoided.

DuPont reckons it can manage its activities in this space effectively given its access to agriculture through the Pioneer-Hi Bred seeds business, through its involvement in important biofuels and bio-products markets, like China and Brazil, and its understanding of the packaging and automotive businesses.

There will be a lot of room in this space but the partnerships and the technologies are being snapped up.

“We are in pursuit of large, growing renewable markets in excess of $150bn,” Binetti said.

“The developing nature of this space coupled with our advantaged biotechnology capabilities and market-access provides us the opportunity for step-change growth and competitive advantage.”

($1 = €0.80)

Read Doris de Guzman's ICIS Green Chemicals blog
For more on DuPont, DSM and Reliance Industries visit ICIS company intelligence
To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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