Green Chemistry: Biofeedstocks Still Grow

Economic conditions have slowed but not stopped the drive to use renewable resources.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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A partnership between DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn., expects to begin pilot production of ethanol from cellulosics — corn waste and switchgrass — this year at Vonore, Tenn. (Figure 1). DuPont is partnering with BP for biobutanol; they hope to have a "commercial biotechnology package" ready in 2010, aiming to use non-food feedstocks and produce biobutanol at prices lower than that of ethanol.

However, today's economic realities are impacting industry's efforts. In a recent interview, Gill reported that C2B2's momentum toward renewable fuels and feedstocks has decreased. Some chemical companies, including DuPont and Dow, have dropped their membership. There's still plenty going on, but the change in economic conditions constitutes nothing less than "a threat to the industry," he declares.

Changing Paradigm
The industry is moving forward, but "the paradigm is changing," notes Dilum Dunuwila, vice president for business development at DNP Green Technology, Princeton, N.J. When oil prices exceeded $100 per barrel last year, a broad switch from petroleum to bio-based feedstocks seemed almost a given, Dunuwila says. Now the transition looks to be more incremental, more pragmatic and complementary, and based on the value of biotechnologies with regard to price, performance, renewable content and CO2 footprint reduction.

The company, which is commercializing a fermentation route to succinic acid from corn, wheat, sugar beet, sugar cane and cellulosics, is persevering. Succinic acid production should start this fall at a 2,000-metric-ton/yr demonstration plant at Pomacle, France, of its joint venture Bioamber.

"There's a significant burden on industrial biotech companies to show that fermentation technologies work at a significant scale for long periods of time," says Dunuwila. Besides proving its process reliable and flexible enough for multiple feedstocks, the company must convince potential customers that succinic acid will be available to them in sufficient quantities and at competitive prices. "We have developed technologies with the value chain — renewable feedstock companies to petrochemicals — in mind."

One promising target market is the C4 segment, including 1,4 butanediol. Bioamber announced a partnership in December with Basic Solutions, Leeds, U.K., for a "new generation of runway de-icers with a low impact profile." Testing at airports should begin this winter.

The paradigm also is changing because oil price spikes aren't the only driver of innovation, Dunuwila adds. Carbon taxes and caps on greenhouse gases emissions are looming. Also, consumer demand for renewables and greener technologies provides an impetus. "Even the big players have accepted that there's a place for biochemicals… The new innovation cycle, particularly for polymers, shows 100% of the effort dedicated to technologies from bio-sources," he says.

Another company staking out locations along the renewable resources value chain is Microbia Inc., Lexington, Mass. It aims to leverage its metabolic engineering and bioprocessing expertise to develop and commercialize green processes for specialty and commodity chemicals production. The first specialty chemical products should appear in 2010.

"The company's pipeline includes two carotenoid products for use in human and animal nutrition markets that are traditionally manufactured from petrochemical-derived raw materials," Microbia notes. "Currently at the commercialization stage, Microbia believes its natural fermentation-based processes for these products offer significant cost advantages over traditional chemical synthesis methods, with the additional advantage of being based on renewable raw materials."

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