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Biobased Chemicals

BASF is going deeper into industrial biotech

German major unveils multi-pronged approach in a bid to cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs

by Alex Scott
November 21, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 42

Two BASF scientists holdng up petri dish.
Credit: BASF
BASF says it is combining industrial biotechnology with digitalization tools to develop lower-carbon processes for existing and new products.

BASF plans to substantially increase its use of industrial biotechnology in the coming years as part of a strategy to combat high energy prices, drive down greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact, and launch products with novel performance, Melanie Maas-Brunner, BASF’s chief technology officer, told journalists at a Nov. 17 briefing.

The company, the world’s largest chemical maker, aims to apply biotechnology across its product range, from building blocks like ethylene to fine chemicals used to make flavors and fragrances. “We are also thinking about new raw materials and new processes,” Maas-Brunner said.

BASF currently relies heavily on natural gas and the crude oil distillate, naphtha, as raw materials. Transitioning to industrial biotech would enable the company to use biomaterial feedstocks, including some waste streams, instead. Such a shift would help the company reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2030 from 2018 levels, Maas-Brunner said.

The firm already uses biotechnology to make more than 3,000 products, including biopolymers, crop protection chemicals, enzymes, flavors, and vitamins. In 2021, such products contributed more than $3.6 billion in sales, or 4.6% of BASF’s total sales, Maas-Brunner said. To augment its existing activities in biotech, BASF plans to add to partnerships it already has with biotech firms and academic experts.

BASF says it will enhance its use of biotech with the help of digital technologies. Examples include computational protein engineering for protein optimization and bioinformatics for identifying genes and enzymes, said Doreen Schachtschabel, vice president for industrial biotech research at BASF.

BASF has biotech R&D centers in San Diego and at its headquarters site in Ludwigshafen, Germany; it deploys the technology at about 20 production sites around the world. BASF did not disclose by how much it will increase R&D spending on industrial biotech. Overall, the company aims to spend $2.3 billion on R&D next year, level with 2022, Maas-Brunner said, despite a recent announcement that it will execute a nearly $500 million company-wide cost-cutting program.

To carry out its strategy, the company will use a broad suite of biotechnologies, including classical fermentation processes using modified microorganisms such as a bacterium or fungus that excrete a target compound when fed sugars.

BASF is also exploring turning waste gases into chemical feedstocks via a partnership with the biotech firm LanzaTech. The US company uses microorganisms to convert waste gases—including carbon dioxide—into ethanol and other feedstocks. Lanzatech wants to codevelop processes for making precursors to BASF’s products, Sean Simpson, LanzaTech’s cofounder and chief scientific officer, said during the press briefing from his laboratory in Chicago. LanzaTech’s technology provides the chemical industry with “a clear path” to reduce its dependence on carbon from fossil fuels, Simpson said.



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