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Small Technologies Firms Find A Home

Informex introduces forum for sustainable chemistry firms

by Ann M. Thayer
February 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 7

A new venue opened at this year's Informex trade show, held last month in San Francisco. Traditionally, the annual meeting leans heavily toward pharmaceutical chemicals and suppliers of custom chemical manufacturing services. But the trade show opened both the exhibit floor and center stage to companies developing sustainable chemistries for a variety of end markets.

The inaugural GreenExchange program included a pavilion housing small exhibit spaces for about 12 companies. Paul Vogt, vice president for process development services at the start-up company SiGNa Chemistry, was enthusiastic about finding a home there. "We otherwise wouldn't have been able to be a part of Informex and make the contacts that we did," he says. "We've had a lot of walk-up traffic."

By no means, however, is SiGNa an unknown quantity. The New York City-based company has won a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award and was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer in 2008 for its technology to stabilize reactive alkali metals and make them safer to handle. It is working to have its novel materials incorporated into processes across the chemical, pharmaceutical, and energy industries.

At Informex, SiGNa announced that it is opening an alternative energy research center in Davis, Calif., to support a new hydrogen generator program. There, SiGNa scientists will look to create alternative methods to generate hydrogen for small-scale applications such as backup power sources and portable fuel cells. SiGNa already operates a process development and technical center in Monmouth Junction, N.J.

Meanwhile, on stage at an Informex Green Chemistry breakfast briefing, company executives, along with government and academic scientists, gave presentations on the outlook for economically viable and environmentally friendly technologies. Many corporate initiatives are geared toward milder reaction conditions, more efficient manufacturing processes, and greater use of renewable raw materials.

On the dais, Genomatica's chief executive, Christopher Gann, discussed his firm's biobased routes to standard bulk chemicals. While some industrial biotech companies are developing plastics and other end-use materials, the San Diego-based start-up is targeting chemical intermediates. It plans to scale up its technology in a demonstration plant for 1,4-butanediol, used to make spandex and other materials.

Using 30% less energy and producing 25% less carbon dioxide, the company's process has a cost advantage over synthetic production, even with oil prices around $40 per barrel, Gann told C&EN. Falling prices for sugar, the raw material consumed in Genomatica's process, have benefited the calculation.

Unfortunately in today's economic climate, Gann explained, the chemical industry's focus has shifted away from long-term efforts on green technology to short-term concerns about cost reduction and company survival.

He's optimistic, however, that once companies get past "survival mode" they'll get back on track toward efficient, safe, and environmentally benign processes. "Through biomanufacturing, significant strides are possible toward sustainable chemicals," Gann said. "Many large, successful companies are implementing such processes and doing it profitably."

More closely linked to pharmaceutical industry interests, Ronald Gebhard, R&D director for DSM's pharmaceutical products division, spoke at the breakfast about producing materials using both biological and chemical tools, including catalysis.

Just two days before, DSM Principal Scientist Peter Poechlauer described a continuous microreactor-based process the company uses to make active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). Microreactors, DSM says, can allow hazardous reactions to be run safely and with a small operational footprint.

During Informex, DSM announced that it is joining the Pharmaceutical Roundtable of the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute as an associate member. Founded in 2005, the Roundtable is a partnership between the GCI and several major drug companies. Its mission is to encourage the integration of green chemistry and green engineering in the pharmaceutical industry.

Recently, according to DSM, GCI decided that companies significantly engaged in R&D or the manufacturing of intermediates and APIs for the drug industry could apply for membership. DSM is the first such company to join.

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