Renewable Feedstocks Update: Industrial Biotech Advances

Industrial biotechnology, when defined as large scale production of fuels and chemicals from biomass (i.e. renewable feedstocks) has been around for a long time, though in a limited way compared to production from hydrocarbon feedstocks. Ethanol (from sugar cane, molasses, corn) and citric acid (from sugars) have been produced for a long time as have higher chain detergent alcohols from so-called fatty acids based on coconut or palm kernel oil. Many other chemicals can be derived with known fermentation technology using different strains of microbes, but up to recently, the economics of making these chemicals were generally unattractive.  What has changed are improvements in technology, the high price of crude oil and the rising interest in green products. The industrial biotech industry may now be at a “tipping point” according to Myriant (see below) as reported in ICIS Green Chemicals, an ICIS blog.

While most customers resist paying higher prices for products made from renewable feedstocks, companies are now starting to compete in offering greener products and are encouraging chemical companies to step up their research. Coca Cola and Pepsi are both offering partly “green” polyethylene terephthalic (PET) bottles for cola drinks and Pepsi offers a water bottle completely produced from biomass.

A number of companies (Myriant, Bioamber, BASF) are building large plants to produce via fermentation, a chemical not well known to the public but promising to become an intermediate to make a series of other chemicals now produced exclusively from crude oil or natural gas. Succinic acid,  a versatile four-carbon “building block” will be produced at a competitive price that will require no green “premium”. Polylactic Acid started being produced from starch in a 140,000 tons/year plant partly owned by Cargill in Nebraska. Sales, at first slow, are now rising rapidly with to supply several end markets like adhesives, surfactants and biopolymers (plastics). In another development, Dow andOPX Biotechnologies are developing a process to make acrylic acid (a multibillion pound paint and adhesive chemical) from renewable feedstocks and hope to soon build the first commercial facility if process development proceeds on schedule. (Chemical Week, June 11/18 2012 Pp. 21-24)

The push to make fuels and chemicals from biomass, originally driven mainly from a sustainability perspective, has now shifted largely to technology development and economic fundamentals. This has also changed the emphasis to a large extent from biofuels to biochemicals, since the latter are sold at a higher price while biofuels must now compete with much less expensive natural gas. An exception is alcohol from feedstocks other than corn (i.e. cellulosics such as corn stalks and switchgrass) which is still being supported by the Federal Government as reported in a previous post.

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