INSIGHT: Feedstock fears drive biotech partnerships

18 May 2011 16:44  [Source: ICIS news]

By Clay Boswell

NEW YORK (ICIS)--Chemical majors currently see industrial biotechnology primarily as way to supplement existing supply chains rather than as a source of novel “green” intermediates. Strategically, the objective is to decouple the price and availability of key building blocks from fluctuations in the oil market.

The theme was sounded repeatedly at this year’s World Congress of Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing (WCIBB) in Toronto, which ended on 11 May.

Isobutene, butanediol and acrylic acid could be the first key chemical intermediates to benefit from the rapid progress of industrial biotechnology.

Thomas Haas, head of the Biotechnology Science-to-Business (S2B) Centre at Germany-based manufacturer Evonik, explained his firm’s perspective during a panel discussion.

“The vision of our approach… is to support our core business – to make it even more sustainable for the future, so that we can [continue to] produce our products and serve our customers,” he said. “That means… we are not so much focused on totally new bio-products. We are more focused on drop-in bio-products to support our present products.”

Similar views were expressed by officials from several other major producers in attendance.

“We are the biggest synthetic rubber manufacturer in the world, so we’re very interested in C4s – isobutene, butadiene [BD],” said Ron Commander, head of the butyl rubber business unit at Germany’s LANXESS. “But we’ve now made a decision to divorce ourselves from the barrel of oil.”

Commander highlighted the role of sustainability in the company’s C4 business, but he also stressed the importance of compatibility. “We are really looking… for drop-in materials,” he noted. “So that narrows the list of partners we can talk with.”

Such statements might suggest a conservative attitude toward bio-based chemicals, but they actually demonstrate the degree to which recent developments have raised expectations for industrial biotechnology.

At the same time, they reflect growing concern for the threat posed by increasingly volatile oil prices and tightening supplies of C3 and C4 monomers.

To this point, the most successful materials produced by industrial biotechnology have been completely new products that could not have been made economically from petrochemicals.

Examples are polylactic acid (US-based NatureWorks’ Ingeo, from corn-derived lactic acid) or polytrimethylene terephthalate (US-based DuPont’s Sorona, produced with corn-derived 1,3-propanediol).

Now, however, biotech start-ups such as US-based Gevo, Genomatica and OPXBIO have developed bio-based pathways to basic intermediates that are purportedly competitive with traditional petrochemical routes.

These firms have, moreover, convinced some of the largest chemical companies in the world to support commercialisation of the new bio-based processes.

OPXBIO has enlisted US-based Dow Chemical’s help to develop a bio-based acrylic acid process.

Genomatica has separate partnerships with UK-based Tate & Lyle, Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical and Italy’s Mossi & Ghisolfi (M&G) to commercialise its butanediol (BDO) process.

Gevo has joined with LANXESS to scale up a bio-based isobutene process.

If successful, these technologies would completely transform supply chain dynamics. For the first time, consumers of basic building blocks would be able to soften the impact of turbulence upstream by switching to a second, entirely separate channel, one leading back to agricultural rather than petroleum markets.

And if agriculture markets were in trouble, consumers might even be able to draw on a third channel – a partnership between Genomatica and US-based Waste Management to develop a BDO process employing microbes capable of metabolising synthesis gas derived from municipal waste.

That these alternative sources also were sustainable would be icing on the cake.

By: Clay Boswell
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