INSIGHT: Bio-alliances target raw materials, intermediates, polymers

23 December 2013 15:00  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--A lot of the work is at the pre-development stage but a flurry of announcements in the last few weeks have highlighted the increased focus being put across the chemical industry on industrial or white biotechnology.

The very breadth of the approach chemical companies are taking to industrial biotechnology illustrates its potential.

Bio-based paraxylene, for instance, is paving the way for truly green PET (polyethylene terephthalate). A process to catalytically convert sugars into paraxylene won US-based Virent the ICIS award for Best Innovation in Sustainability this year.

The old bio-route to ethylene, via sugar-derived ethanol, provides the other raw material for the ubiquitous packaging plastic widely used to bottle water and soft drinks.

The Virent process can produce a wide range of chemicals including aromatics. The opportunity in PET was to make paraxylene and target the 100% bio-based PET bottle market. Its BioFormPX was first produced in 2011.

Virent is only a small company but firms of all sizes are pursuing green ambitions. It, though, has attracted funding from big oil and the drinks giant Coca-Cola.

The feedstocks for paraxylene have ranged from corn in the US, sugar beet in Europe and sugarcane in Brazil.

The company has teamed up with another US biochemicals producer, Renmatix, to integrate feedstock processing and production.

It is estimated that annual bioplastics production could reach 6.2m tonnes by 2017, a sizeable volume.

And the industry is growing at close to 20% a year but bioplastics still have a market share of only 1%. There are concerns that the food versus fuel debate, or the questions being asked about using food crops as feedstocks for industrial biotechnology, is harming the image of bioplastics.

But some companies are pursing process routes from a much broader base of renewable or waste materials, with the aim of reducing food crop dependency.

BASF and Renmatix, for instance, have signed a joint-development agreement to scale up the latter’s technology to extract sugars from woody biomass.

Sugars are the feedstock for many renewable chemicals and polymers so a low-cost source or processing route is attractive.

Renmatix uses supercritical water at a high temperature and pressure to produce C5 and C6 sugars from woody biomass.

The process is likely to compete with gasification, or the production of synthesis gas which can then be fed to microorganisms.

Germany’s Evonik and US gas fermentation technology firm LanzaTech have signed a three-year agreement to research a bio-derived synthesis gas route to speciality plastics.

The synthesis gas could come from a variety of gasified biomass waste streams including forestry or residual agricultural products and gasified municipal waste.

Some of Evonik’s current research and development (R&D) work is focused on renewables and specific waste streams.

"Chemical companies such as DuPont, BASF and DSM are rolling out visible corporate strategies with clear messaging around intent to develop bio-based chemicals,” Genomatica’s CEO Christophe Schilling told ICIS in August. Others that are not as vocal are also clearly interested."

The momentum behind the business is being driven by growth in consumer end-uses such as bottles, clothing and packaging.

Genomatica is focused on bio-butanediol (bio-BDO) and bio-butadiene (bio-BD) as well as other intermediates.

In May, BASF agreed to license Genomatica's technology to build a bio-based BDO plant with a capacity of around 50,000 tonnes/year.

Genomatica also has an agreement with Novamont to retrofit a plant in Italy to produce up to 20,000 tonnes/year of bio-BDO and arrangements to demonstrate the bio product in polymers and fibres made by Toray, LANXESS and Taiwan’s Far Eastern New Century.

As far as PET is concerned, producer INVISTA has been striking deals this year to broaden its understanding of biotechnology. It has agreements with Ingenza from the UK, SilicoLife from Portugal and Arzeda of the US and plans to develop with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) gas-fermentation-based technologies for industrial chemicals.

This approach sees a chemical company tapping into the potential for a biochemical approach to using a broad range of waste streams.

“INVISTA believes biotechnology has the potential to significantly improve the cost and availability of several chemicals and raw materials that are used to produce its current products,” president of INVISTA Intermediates, Warren Primeaux, said.

“We see gas fermentation as a key enabling technology that will allow the use of potentially advantaged gas feedstocks such as waste industrial gases."

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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