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Chemicals Star At Biotech Congress

Industrial Biotechnology: Firms tout progress toward cost-competitive renewable chemicals

by Melody Voith
July 5, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 27

Credit: MBI
Genomatica produces 1,4-butanediol from sugar in fermentation tanks.
Credit: MBI
Genomatica produces 1,4-butanediol from sugar in fermentation tanks.

Chemicals, not fuels, were the focus of many companies at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing, held last week outside Washington, D.C. As start-up firms search for elusive profits in industrial biotech, they are finding that making high-volume chemicals can be more lucrative than trying to compete with gasoline.

“Biofuels were really hot two or three years ago, but over the last few years, firms have come to realize that it is very difficult to make money just on fuel,” observed Andrew L. Shafer, executive vice president for sales and marketing development at Elevance Renewable Sciences.

A specialty chemical start-up, Elevance uses olefin metathesis to make products from oils such as palm, soybean, and jatropha. The firm announced during the meeting that it will open a commercial-scale biorefinery in Surabaua, Indonesia, as a joint venture with Wilmar International, a global agribusiness group. Set to start up next year, the facility will have an initial annual capacity of 200,000 tons of biobased olefins for chemicals and fuels, as well as esters of 9-decenoic acid, according to the company.

Other biotech firms described progress in scaling up chemical operations, although none to the size of the Elevance facility. San Diego-based Genomatica reported that it has piloted its fermentation manufacturing process for 1,4-butanediol and is making 3,000-L quantities from commercial-grade sugars.

Zeachem said it will add cellulosic ethanol production to the product stream of its 250,000-gal-per-year biorefinery, now under construction in Boardman, Ore. The company previously announced plans to produce acetic acid and ethyl acetate at the facility.

Charles R. Eggert, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based start-up OPX Biotechnologies, said the firm’s pilot operation is moving faster than planned toward its cost target for production of biobased acrylic acid. He hopes to reach 50 cents per lb—less expensive than petroleum-based acrylic acid—this summer.

While the start-ups work on proving out their industrial chemical processes, research on renewable fuels continues. At the event, the Department of Energy announced grants worth up to $24 million for three groups working on fuels made from algae.



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