Issue Date: July 2, 2012
Roquette Embraces Biobased Materials
In the growing arena of biobased materials, Roquette is a standout. One of the world’s five largest starch-processing companies, Roquette leads the charge among European companies in replacing petrochemicals with plant-derived chemicals. The company is starting to roll out its biobased products to partners and customers around the world.
Roquette develops plant-derived chemicals as alternatives to established petrochemicals such as plasticizers, bisphenol A (BPA), and plastics. Roquette’s biobased materials cost more than their petrochemical counterparts. The company claims, however, that their superior properties will ensure they compete in the marketplace.
“It’s the future. It’s the beginning of a new story,” says Jean-Bernard Leleu, Roquette’s deputy chief executive officer. Roquette, a privately owned firm, is based in Lestrem, in northern France. It generated sales of about $3.8 billion in 2011. Most of the firm’s income is from plant-based products such as starch and sugars for the food and nutrition markets, not from its fledgling biobased chemical business.
Roquette’s strategy to develop biobased chemicals has accelerated during the past few years, as have similar plans at the larger starch-processing firms Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.
Yet the company is undaunted at pitting itself against Cargill, ADM, or even major petrochemical firms. Founded in 1933, Roquette has a history of tackling challenges head-on: In the 1990s, for example, it rerouted a river that had divided its 1.6-km-long manufacturing complex in Lestrem. By moving the river the company reduced the risk of polluting the water, made the north part of its site suitable for construction, and sidelined the prospect of fishermen wandering into a major industrial site. “We moved a lot of earth,” Leleu says with a wry smile.
Roquette’s move to develop technology for converting starch into polymers and plasticizers gained speed through its participation in BioHub, an R&D program. It launched in 2006 with a $270 million subsidy from the French government to develop new production outlets for chemicals generated from agricultural materials such as cereals. Other participants in BioHub include the chemical makers Arkema, DSM, and Solvay.
BioHub has been welcomed by the European Commission. It complements other efforts to enhance “the competitiveness and sustainable growth of the European economy,” Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission said in approving aid to the program.
Scientific know-how developed within BioHub enabled Roquette to develop a process for manufacturing highly pure isosorbide by dehydrating sorbitol, a glucose derivative. Isosorbide finds use, sometimes in place of BPA, in making polymers in the polyester, polyurethane, and polycarbonate families. In addition, isosorbide diesters can replace phthalates as a polyvinyl chloride plasticizer.
Development of the new sorbitol dehydration process, which was partially funded by BioHub, follows almost six decades of sorbitol production at the company, Leleu says. According to Roquette, isosorbide was not used to make polymers prior to the BioHub’s 2006 launch because manufacturers considered meeting polymer purity standards too difficult.
The company used part of the BioHub funding to build a plant at Lestrem that produces up to 5,000 metric tons per year of high-purity isosorbide. In operation since 2011, the plant has demonstrated that the new process works at commercial scale, the company says.
Roquette markets isosorbide under the brand name Polysorb. The business opportunity is significant, Leleu says, because BPA’s global market is more than 2 million metric tons annually. Polymers made with isosorbide are transparent, have good mechanical and thermal properties, and have good chemical and scratch resistance, the company claims.
The firm is already supplying isosorbide for use in polymers. In one agreement, Mitsubishi Chemical has selected isosorbide to make a BPA-free polycarbonate sold under the brand name Durabio. Mitsubishi operates a pilot plant for the polymer and plans to start up a 5,000-metric-ton-per-year commercial plant this summer.
Roquette seeks to sell one of its isosorbide diester plasticizers, Polysorb ID 37, in place of phthalates, some of which have raised toxicity concerns. One of Polysorb ID 37’s early commercial applications is in flooring made by an undisclosed European manufacturer. The manufacturer promotes the flooring as a sustainable product, Leleu says.
“In the long run the manufacture of isosorbide should actually be less expensive than BPA,” says Kalib Kersh, lead analyst with the biobased materials and chemicals practice at Lux Research, a U.S.-based market research group. If Roquette’s products cost more than the petrochemical competition, poor economies of scale could be the culprit, or perhaps the company is seeking a “green premium,” Kersh says. “All of the biobased alternatives should have a future if they can compete on cost and quality,” he adds.
Roquette also drew on its BioHub participation to develop fermentation processes that turn starch into glycolic acid, succinic acid, methionine, and other derivatives. For example, the company is working with the French start-up Metabolic Explorer, another BioHub participant, to develop a biobased version of the feed additive methionine. And earlier this year it launched Reverdia, a joint venture with DSM that plans to start making succinic acid at Roquette’s Cassano Spinola site in Italy. Succinic acid is a starting material for pharmaceuticals, polymers, and other products.
Reverdia’s succinic acid fermentation process is cost-effective and eco-friendly, says Rob van Leen, DSM’s chief innovation officer, and it “proves that the biobased economy is no longer a distant prospect,” van Leen says.
The French firm also has developed plant-derived plastics with properties similar to polypropylene or polyethylene. Roquette produces its Gaïalene-brand plastics from grains using an undisclosed technology. Gaïalene is suitable as a film for packaging or for protecting crops, Leleu says. It can also be molded into boxes, pens, and more.
The polymer is 50 to 60% biobased and 40 to 50% petrochemical. It requires the presence of synthetic polymer chains to ensure that the plant-based component does not degrade in water.
The company is striving to push the biobased content of its Gaïalene higher, “but we have a lot of chemistry to do first,” Leleu acknowledges.
Roquette has invested heavily in R&D firepower to achieve its goals, with more than 300 researchers and technicians who file up to 30 patents a year. The company maintains close ties to universities and laboratories around the world through more than 100 research partnerships, Leleu says.
Roquette opened its first Gaïalene plant in Lestrem at the beginning of 2012 with an annual capacity of 25,000 metric tons. “European demand for eco-friendly products should make Gaïalene plastics successful even though they are more expensive than polypropylene or polyethylene,” Leleu contends.
Promoting awareness of biobased materials’ benefits is an important task for EuropaBio, a Brussels-based industry association that counts Roquette among its members. “Good progress is currently being made in terms of standardization of biobased products, which is absolutely fundamental to creating a stable market framework,” says Joanna Dupont-Inglis, director of industrial biotechnology for EuropaBio. Access to finance, the stimulation of market demand, and communication are among priority issues for the sector, Dupont-Inglis says.
“Many other economies are making steady progress in these areas, notably the U.S. with its BioPreferred program,” Dupont-Inglis says. The U.S. government uses the program to encourage purchase of biobased materials. "We would like to make sure that a good share of the innovative biobased products developed in the EU can also be commercialized here first.”
In a technology development program that could propel Europe ahead of other regions, Roquette is leading a 14-member consortium called AlgoHub to develop nutrition and health products from microalgae. The partners bring expertise in active compound extraction, cell engineering, cosmetics, marine biotechnology, nutrition, and pharmacology. The five-year program, which runs through 2013, has a budget of about $38 million. Roquette plans to introduce a series of products derived from microalgae during the next few years, including food ingredients developed with the U.S.-based algal oil firm Solazyme.
Although the company predicts that its biobased products will be in demand thanks to their performance, Leleu says he would also like to see regulators introduce more stringent environmental criteria to encourage faster uptake of biomaterials. “But the petrochemical lobby is very powerful, and we are very small,” he adds.
If demand for Roquette’s biobased chemicals take off, scaling up production should not be a concern. To make its 700 starch-based products, the company already brings five to six trains into Lestrem each day laden with thousands of tons of wheat and maize. Leleu expects that additional trains carrying materials for its greener plasticizers and polymers will soon be pulling in.
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