Eco-friendly Developments Blossom

Chemical makers strive to markedly extend the role of renewable feedstocks

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The drive for more sustainable, or eco-friendly, products is leading to a host of new collaborations and innovations by chemical manufacturers.

BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, exemplifies the trend. It is one of 17 partners involved in BIONEXGEN (Next Generation of Biocatalysts), a research project supported by the European Union. The three-year project draws on both industrial and academic expertise and aims to develop a new generation of biocatalysts for more sustainable production processes in the chemical industry.

The partners have identified four key technology areas: amine synthesis, polymers from renewable resources, glycoscience, and wider oxidase applications.

BASF, which is investing €1.3 million ($1.7 million) of its own money alongside €600,000 ($791,000) of EU funds from the European Research FP7 program, is particularly focused on projects that involve the biocatalytic synthesis of amines and the use of enzymes in the manufacturing of functional polymers (Figure 1).

Commenting on the overall project, Dr. Kai Baldenius, head of biocatalysis research at BASF and the man with responsibility for BIONEXGEN, says, "It is a general target of BASF to make processes more efficient. In this EU project, we engage in early phase research, searching for new, highly selective biocatalysts."

Amines are among the most important family of compounds produced by chemical makers — and used in bulk for manufacture of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, polymers and speciality chemicals. Traditional routes to amines often rely on toxic metal reagents and catalysts that mandate costly protective measures and produce wasteful byproducts. Biocatalytics offer great potential to reduce cost and the amount of waste products. Research here will focus on three enzyme classes: monoamine oxidases, ammonia lyases and transaminases.

BASF's amine synthesis goals within BIONEXGEN will build on existing experience, notes Baldenius: "BASF has successfully commercialized the biocatalytic production of enantiomerically pure chiral amines for the pharma and agro industry. We now strive to extend the scope of biocatalytic amine production to a broader range of amines. How far this scope can be extended remains unknown at this very early stage."

Glycoscience and oligosaccharide synthesis is one of the most challenging disciplines in organic synthesis, often requiring complex protection and reaction strategies. Currently biotechnology can serve in a few glycosynthetic and oligosaccharide transformation methods. However, these methods aren't yet routinely applied industrially, although it's acknowledged that enzymatic systems offer great potential for selective synthesis.

This part of the project is developing methods that will prove valuable for simplifying the synthesis of molecules of pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and household chemical interest. Researchers at the University of Manchester, Manchester, U.K., and BASF are combining biology, chemistry and molecular biology to synthesize a variety of glycoproteins, glycolipids and polysaccharides, all of which are important molecules in medicine and nutrition.