SOCMA: Green technologies almost ready to go

27 September 2012 10:52  [Source: ICB]

The industrial biotechnology sector is going through a dynamic phase, with many companies scaling up production from pilot to commercial capacity. But the efficiency of biological conversion processes remains relatively low, and more technological breakthroughs will be needed before the sector can realise its full potential.

Larry Drumm Founder, Biotechnology International

"If the [bio-based] market is worth $200bn today, doubling that figure by 2020 is not out of the question"

Larry Drumm
Founder, Biotechnology International

Innovation rates are currently high, as the sector develops new bio-based materials and expands beyond its main large-volume product, ethanol, says Larry Drumm of Biotechnology International. The US-based company facilitates dialogue between stakeholders in the industrial biotechnology value chain and provides consulting services.

Ethanol technology has been around for decades, and therefore building an ethanol plant is relatively low risk, says Drumm. "There's a whole set of different risks in this new wave of industrial biotechnology."

The bio-based ethanol sector was developed for automotive fuel applications, but the product is also used as a chemicals feedstock for the ethylene production chain. Brazilian resins major Braskem produces "green" polyethylene (PE), based on sugarcane ethanol, in Brazil, and US-based Dow Chemical is also developing an ethanol-based PE project in the country.

Another fully commercial bio-based plastic is polylactic acid (PLA), which is produced in large quantities by NatureWorks, a joint venture between US company Cargill and Thailand's PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC).

The industrial biotechnology sector is developing product-by-product, mainly using bio-catalysis or metabolically engineered micro-organisms to covert the raw material into the desired product, says Drumm. The rate of introduction of new bio-based chemicals contrasts with the petroleum-based chemicals sector, where rates have decreased dramatically over the last few decades, he observes. "It's nice to be in the biological side of the industry, where the rate of innovation is much higher and will be for some time," he remarks.

In theory, most commodity petrochemicals can be produced from renewable feedstocks. One product attracting substantial interest is bio-based succinic acid, and various new succinic acid plants currently being planned or under construction. Succinic acid is attractive because it can be converted into several C4 chemicals, including 1,4-butanediol (BDO).

US firm BioAmber was the first company to produce succinic acid on a commercial scale when it built its production plant in Pomacle, France. The company then licensed technology from DuPont to convert the succinic acid into BDO, and plans to build additional succinic acid and BDO plants with partners.


Developing new products requires technological breakthroughs at the industrial scale to improve the efficiency of biological conversions. "One of the disadvantages of biological processing is that it is very carbon-inefficient," says William Armiger of BioChemInsights, which provides start-up advice and market information to new business ventures.

Converting corn into ethanol, for example, only provides about a 50% yield on the raw material input since a tonne of glucose extracted from the corn produces approximately half a tonne of ethanol and half a tonne of carbon dioxide, he explains.

New technologies are being developed to improve fundamentally the carbon efficiency of biological processing, Armiger says. This will involve basic changes to the process, he adds, noting that details remain confidential.

Armiger and Drumm are executive directors of the Society for the Commercial Development of Industrial Biotechnology (SCD-iBIO), an affiliate of SOCMA that aims to advance the commercialisation of industrial biotechnology.

This it defines as the application of biology to the environmentally friendly and economically sustainable production and processing of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials and energy. SCD-iBIO is hosting its first international forum on 12-14 November at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

To reduce the risks associated with developing and commercialising new technologies, industrial biotechnology companies have sought industrial partnerships. These partners may fund the research, the development or the commercialisation, and may also market the products.

William Armiger President, BioChemInsights

"To build a more sustainable economy, we need to take carbon from the air rather than the ground"

William Armiger
President, BioChemInsights

BioAmber's strategy has been interesting, says Drumm, because the company has collaborated with different types of partners in different markets so it can focus on production methods while the partners focus on market penetration. The fact that BioAmber produces both succinic acid and BDO has attracted the attention of Japanese and Thai companies that are interested in producing polybutylene succinic acid. Polybutylene succinic acid, which is produced from the two feedstocks, is used mainly in Asia as a biodegradable film.

BioAmber's partners include PTT MCC Biochem (PTTMCC), which is a joint venture between PTT and Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical, and Japan's Mitsui & Co. Similarly, Myriant has a partnership for its succinic acid project with PTTGC, and has marketing and supply collaborations with other companies.

US-based biotechnology firm Genomatica has teamed up with Italian chemicals major Versalis and Italian biodegradable plastics producer Novamont to produce bio-based butadiene. The partnership combines Genomatica's proprietary technologies and intellectual property for BD production with Versalis' catalysis process development and market knowledge with Novamont's ­experience with renewable feedstocks.

Another US company, Gevo, has been working with chemical firms such as Germany-based LANXESS on isobutanol-based isobutene, Japan'sToray Industrieson isobutanol-derived paraxylene (PX) and South Africa-based Sasolon the use of bio-isobutanol for solvent applications.

BASF has also announced a partnership with Novozymes and Cargill to produce bio-based acrylic acid from 3-hydroxypropionic. The German major plans to use the acrylic acid to manufacture superabsorbent polymers. Producing acrylic acid from renewable feedstocks avoids the need to use the conventional feedstock, propylene, which could become in short supply in future.

In Brazil, Braskem is developing a bio-based propylene project, so it can manufacture "green" polypropylene (PP). Braskem will react ethanol-based ethylene with itself, creating a C4 olefin. That olefin will be reacted with ethanol-based ethylene using metathesis technology to produce propylene. Braskem is working with Novozymes to develop an alternative process to make bio-based propylene.

Increasingly, industrial biotechnology companies are looking beyond the traditional bio-based feedstocks such as sugarcane and corn, towards cellulosic biomass. Using cellulosic biomass as feedstock avoids competition with food crops, but just as important is the cost of that cellulosic feedstock, says Drumm.


DuPont, for example, has announced plans to build its first cellulosic ethanol plant. Located in the US, the plant will have the capacity of produce 27.5m gal/year of ethanol from corn stover. It is expected to come on stream in the second half of 2013 or first half of 2014. DuPont says it plans to license its technology and supply licensees with the associated enzymes and its ethanologen yeast that digests C5 and C6 sugars.

While most investments in cellulosic feedstocks are aimed at the production of ethanol as a fuel, energy companies such as BP and Shell are realising the benefits of using these cellulosic sugars to produce chemicals and plastics. "Many of the fuel companies involved in lignocellulosic raw materials are also active in chemicals, because of the lower volumes and higher prices," says Drumm.

It is important to raise public awareness about the higher economic value of petrochemical feedstocks compared with oil, and hence the need to seek bio-based substitutes for petrochemicals as oil becomes more costly, stresses Armiger. While only 10% of the world's petroleum output is used to make chemicals, that 10% used to make chemicals is much more profitable than the 90% used to make fuels, he adds.

Global demand for bio-based chemicals is growing strongly, boosted by concerns among consumers about global warming and diminishing supplies of natural resources. "To build a more sustainable economy, we need to take carbon from the air rather than the ground," Armiger says.

According to Novozymes, bio-based chemicals could contribute as much as 17% of the global chemical market by 2025.

It is difficult to predict market growth, says Drumm, because the market is difficult to define and because any forecast depends on oil price assumptions. But recent forecasts indicate that the market could double to $400bn (€317bn) by 2020. "If the market is worth $200bn today, doubling that figure by 2020 is not out of the question," he remarks.

The higher the relative price of oil compared with renewable feedstocks, the better the prospects for bio-based materials. "The ratio of the price of the raw material used to make a product that exists today using petrochemicals to the raw material used to make the same product biologically is very important to the success of bio-based products," says Drumm. Raw materials are estimated to represent about 80% of the cost of manufacturing large volume bio-based products, which is similar to petroleum-based processes, he adds.

Consider 1,3-propanediol, which Anglo-Dutch energy and petrochemicals major Shell used to make from ethylene oxide (EO) and DuPont used to make from propylene, says Drumm. Now all the 1,3-propanediol is made from starch by DuPont because this is a less expensive raw material. As a result, 1,3-propanediol is used in many more applications.

Various major brand owners are investing in bio-based plastic packaging in the hope that consumers will prefer "green" packaging over petroleum-based packaging, says Armiger. Soft drinks giant Coca Cola, for example, has made large-scale investments in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles with a bio-based content. "A lot of people believe that global warming is a problem, and making that choice is something they can do about it," he says.


By: Anna Jagger
+44 20 8652 3214

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