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Biobased Route Draws BASF, Evonik

Renewables: New deals with Genomatica, OPX Bio signal confidence in microbial technologies

by Melody M. Bomgardner
May 16, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 20

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Credit: OPX Bio
OPX Bio workers make chemicals from sugar via fermentation.
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Credit: OPX Bio
OPX Bio workers make chemicals from sugar via fermentation.

Two U.S. biobased chemical firms have struck separate production deals with stalwarts of the German chemical industry. Analysts say the new agreements show that established chemical makers have gained confidence in designer microbes that convert sugar into chemicals.

BASF plans to construct a facility to make sugar-based 1,4-butanediol (BDO) using technology licensed from California’s Genomatica. In February, Genomatica showed the process works when it completed a large-scale manufacturing campaign yielding more than 2,500 tons of the intermediate at DuPont Tate & Lyle Bioproducts’ biobased chemical plant in Loudon, Tenn.

“We chose the Genomatica process because we consider it to be exceptionally advanced and reliable,” says Sanjeev Gandhi, president of BASF’s intermediates division. BDO is used as a solvent and to make spandex fibers and polyurethanes. BASF says it aims to sell the renewable BDO to customers in the plastics, textile, and automotive industries.

BASF is already a major manufacturer of synthetic BDO, with a worldwide production capacity of 590,000 tons per year. The company won’t disclose where the new plant will be located but says it will make 55,000 tons per year and begin supplying samples in the second half of 2013.

In another agreement, biobased chemical firm OPX Biotechnologies has signed a multiyear deal with Evonik Industries to jointly develop specialty chemicals using OPX Bio’s microbe engineering process. OPX Bio earlier formed a partnership with Dow Chemical to scale up its process for making biobased acrylic acid.

Both Genomatica and OPX Bio alter certain metabolic pathways in microbes so they express commercially viable amounts of chemical products. Because it has taken several years to automate these processes and make them cost-effective, early excitement for the industry has quieted, says Kalib Kersh, a biobased chemical analyst at Lux Research. “But what we see is there are real technologies producing large volumes of biobased chemicals,” he adds.

Major chemical producers such as BASF and Evonik are not likely to risk investments in unproven technologies, Kersh explains. “The signal that these deals send is another vote of confidence from the people whose opinions really matter.”

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