The Bioproducts Crescendo Builds

Market forecasts for bioproducts are upbeat. One even predicts that industrial biotechnology will be a $160 billion global business by 2010. Industrial biotechnology first took off in the early 1980s; what gives today's activity a buzz of excitement is the repeat of something else from that era: high energy prices.

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By Nick Basta

A "quiet revolution" is how Chemical Processing characterized industrial biotechnology (also known as "green chemistry") the last time we looked at it (CP, June 2003, p. 64). This revolution is now getting quite noisy.

The most prominent example of this trend remains the Cargill corn-processing facility in Blair, Neb., originally set up to process some 68 million bushels of corn per year into ethanol, animal feed and corn syrup. Over the past three years, a variety of joint ventures have set up shop nearby to use bioproducts derived from corn processing. The first was a partnership with a European company, Purac, to produce lactic acid. A joint venture, Cargill-Dow, uses that product to make polylactic acid (PLA), which is finding increasing acceptance for packaging and fibers. Most recently Cargill has opened a unit at Blair to produce erythritol, a noncaloric sweetener. And there are plans to more than double corn-processing capacity.

The power of the Cargill-style "biorefinery" is that it converts a few raw materials to a variety of interrelated end products, just like traditional oil refineries and petrochemical complexes do.

Cargill also is taking the first steps to biorefining complexes based on soy or other oilseeds. This fall, it won a $1.9-million matching grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy to develop technology based on olefin metathesis technology -- cracking unsaturated oils to produce mono- or difunctional olefins.

Meanwhile, the list of successful industrial biotechnology ventures keeps lengthening. These include Du Pont's collaboration with Genencor to use glucose to make 1,3-propanediol (PDO), a building block for polyester; another Du Pont effort using starch to produce isosobide, a comonomer for polyethylene terephthalate; and an Eastman Chemical project to manufacture ascorbic acid.

Market forecasts are similarly upbeat. McKinsey & Co. predicts that industrial biotechnology will be a $160 billion global business by 2010. The National Research Council, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Dept. of Commerce have weighed in with optimistic reports in the past 12 months. The field even has its own "technology roadmap," today's hallmark for a trend that involves industry effort and government policy, from the Biomass Research and Development Initiative with the Dept. of Energy.

Oilfields to oil farms

Industrial biotechnology is not new; a similar rash of projects occurred in the early 1980s, when biotechnology first took off. What gives today's activity a buzz of excitement is the repeat of something else from that era: high energy prices. With natural gas running at two to three times its historic price, the chemical industry and other high gas-consuming industries are being hurt.

Meanwhile, the biggest-volume "new" industrial biotechnology product keeps chugging along: ethanol. The Renewable Fuels Assn., Washington, D.C., noted in December that in November average daily production reached a new high of 194,000 bbl, and that the industry will have produced 2.75 billion gal. in 2003, up from 2002's record of 2.13 billion gal. An additional 16 ethanol plants are under construction -- a lonely bright spot in a generally gloomy capital-spending vista in the U.S. chemical industry.

Some policy analysts and commentators are skeptical of the benefits -- and long-term sustainability -- of this ethanol boom, arguing that ethanol's energy value barely exceeds that of the fossil fuels used to produce it, and the buildup is artificially spurred by sizable tax incentives. However, this policy debate has occurred in a real world of rising energy prices, agricultural oversupply and environmental damage from MTBE. Ethanol supporters counter that creating an "industrial policy" through tax incentives simply reflects the will of U.S. populace, which strongly favors protecting the environment and is willing to back that desire with money.

Technology can change the equation

The other term in the chemical economics equation for bio-based materials is technology. While conventional cornstarch fermentation has benefited from efficiency gains, the real excitement is genetically engineered organisms such as those used in Du Pont/Genencor's PDO technology.

Last fall, Craig Venter, the molecular biologist famous for his participation in the Human Genome Project, announced that his foundation, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA, Rockville, Md.) had successfully built an artificial bacteriophage (a type of virus) called phi X. The bacteriophage is the first step toward creating organisms that could be directed to specific chemical production paths. The research is still very preliminary. IBEA isn't even sure whether it wants to aim for hydrogen production -- to spur the "hydrogen economy" that is now the preferred research alternative for transportation fuels -- or carbon dioxide sequestration -- to address global warming worries.

But, in either case, projects like this underscore that the "quiet" industrial biotechnology revolution is going to keep getting louder.

Nick Basta is editor at large for Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at nbasta@putman.net.

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