A quiet revolution is taking place within the chemical industry. More and more manufacturers, it seems, are taking the farmers' market approach when it comes to product creation. Agriculturally based, or biobased, feedstocks slowly are making their way into products ranging from adhesives to polymers to solvents.
"Biobased products are beginning to compete with the petroleum-derived products that once displaced them," notes the National Research Council (NRC) in a recent report, Biobased Industrial Products: Research and Commercialization Priorities. "This progress has been made possible by the wealth of knowledge on the scientific basis for conversion of biomass to sugars and other chemicals, particularly the knowledge of biochemical and fermentation fundamentals and related progress in process technology and agricultural economics."
Microbial processes just beginning to be applied for sugar fermentation in commodity chemical production could soon form the basis for large-scale conversion of biomass to liquid fuel, says NRC. In addition, novel chemicals and materials that cannot be manufactured from petroleum might one day be extracted directly from plants.
Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. is just one of a number of manufacturers currently in the bio game. The company has formed a number of alliances with chemical companies and technology providers to further fermentation, enzymatic and chemical technologies for converting agricultural raw materials into "value-added" products.
Cargill's latest alliance is with Redwood City, Calif.-based Codexis Inc., a provider of biocatalysis and fermentation processes and products to the life science and fine chemicals industries.
Under the alliance, the companies will be working on a biochemical platform for the production of specialty chemicals, polymers and other industrial chemicals based on agricultural feedstocks. The companies said they would combine Codexis' MolecularBreeding directed molecular evolution technologies with Cargill's expertise in the development and commercialization of biological processes.
Genencor International Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., also is in the bio forefront. The company's enzymes, created through biotechnology, are used in numerous consumer and industrial products and processes. The company has partnered with Cargill Dow LLC in Blaire, Neb., to make plastic from corn, with DuPont to make propanediol for DuPont's glucose-based Sorona fiber and with Eastman Chemical to produce vitamin C from corn glucose. As part of a $17-million contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Genencor is working to improve the economics of enzyme use in breaking down biomass and complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. These sugars could serve as feedstocks for future biorefineries producing ethanol, organic chemicals and other bioproducts such as plastics.
Better through bio
Biobased materials offer a number of advantages to industry and consumers. According to Tom Pekich, Genencor's group vice president for Bioproducts, they have the potential to decrease U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and other renewable resources; reduce hazardous waste streams, biodiversity depletion and greenhouse gas emissions; and even improve product performance and functionality.
They also offer raw material cost stability, maintains Jim Stoppert, leader of Cargill's Industrial BioProducts Development initiative. "While carbohydrate and triglyceride prices have been known to fluctuate with weather and market demand for crops," he says, "the relative price volatility has been historically lower than for chemical commodities such as ethylene and propylene."
Picking up the pace
Despite the benefits, the pace of biobased product development currently is hampered to a degree by research and development costs in a down economy, as well as by technology limitations within individual companies.
Industry can look to several allies to speed the progress, contends Stoppert, including fellow chemical companies. "Everyone, large or small, will need partners," he stresses. "The development of bioproducts is all about integrating the carbohydrate and hydrocarbon value chains, and no single company has the combination of biotechnology, traditional chemistry, manufacturing and market development capabilities required to get a new product commercialized."
Companies also might want to seek funding from DOE, notes Genencor's Pekich. The agency has supported a number of multimillion-dollar demonstration projects to further integrate commercial biorefineries. In addition, he says, Congress established the Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee to provide "strategic oversight" into biomass-related spending by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and DOE.
USDA wants to boost industry's consumption of bioenergy and biodiesel fuels and said it would be making payments to eligible
producers to encourage the purchase of energy feedstocks to expand fuel production. "Bioenergy reduces U.S. dependence on traditional energy sources, a key element of President Bush's energy plan," notes Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, "while providing alternative market opportunities for producers."
Additional incentives would help, says Pekich. "The industry is interested in incentives designed to neutralize the advantage of incumbent technologies," he maintains. "These would include accelerated depreciation of capital, low-cost financing of facilities, targeted R&D tax credits and preferred purchasing programs."
The other "obvious" incentive, notes Cargill's Stoppert, would be mandates. "However, products that depend on long-term mandates are difficult to sustain," he emphasizes. "Eventually they must be able to stand on their own."