Politics / Law

Biotech processes that devour CO2

03.12.2009

With policymakers deep in discussions on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Danish white biotech firm Novozymes have together calculated what biotech can contribute to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. They concluded that depending on its uptake, white biotech processes can bring CO2 output down by 1-2.5 billion tons annually by 2030 – an amount equivalent to Germany’s total emissions of the gas in 1990. The unlikely alliance has called on politicians to create incentives to accelerate the costly shift from fossil-based to bio-based industrial production. Such processes are currently driven only by cost arguments. However, a recent collaboration project involving German chemicals industry leader BASF and Dutch fermentation specialist CSM N.V. shows that the sector has already begun creating biobased production networks for replacing petrochemical production. By next year, the two companies will start with industrial-scale biobased production of the bulk chemical succinic acid. The compound is expected to act as a platform chemical for the production of a wide range of plastics and high-value chemical products.

In September, the world’s largest NGO, the World Wildlife Fund, and Danish enzyme specialist Novozymes for the first time put a number on the enormous impact biotech processes could potentially have on global warming. According to ”Industrial biotechnology – more than green fuel in a dirty economy?”, white biotech could one day make a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions. The report highlights a unique alliance between environmentalists and industry. “The WWF sees industrial biotech as an industry that can play a very significant role in the development of a new, green economy if developed in the right way. The world can’t afford to ignore this opportunity,” said John Kornerup Bang, Head of the WWF’s Globalisation Programme.
According to the study, replacement of production processes by fermentation and enzymatic transformation processes could save 204 tonnes of CO2 per year straight away. The next possible step is replacing fossil fuels with cellulosic fuels, which the study says would result in a net CO2 reduction of 1,024 million tonnes. In the mid-term, the WWF and Novozymes also see potential in green chemistry production. The replacement of fossil hydrocarbon-based chemicals by biobased platform chemicals such as PHA, PTT, PLA, succinic acid, adipinic acid or N-butanol from lignocellulosic feedstocks would bring a further reduction of 668 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. If expected biorefineries are established by 2030, that could contribute an additional cut of 633 million tonnes.

Biobased economy must

have political support

CEO of Novozymes Steen Riisgaard claims that “in a few years, sugar will be the new oil. Nearly 200 biorefineries are already up and running in the US, and yet we have only seen the beginning. However, to make the biobased economy into reality, we will require political backing.”
The report emphasises that strong public policies must be in place to help realise the potential of industrial biotech, and points out that initiatives such as pollution costs charged on petrol-based materials, investment in advanced waste management technologies, and labelling systems for bio-based products are key to the process.

Industry is only now shifting from oil to renewable sources

Industry has already begun adapting strategies to developments. But recent approaches to establishing biobased processes, e.g succinate production, for fixing atmospheric CO2– from firms like Mitsubishi Chemical Corp/Ajinomoto or DSM N.V./Roquettee – are not yet economic at industrial scale. Attempts at the biobased production of the platform chemical succinic acid, for example, stumbled due to high investment cost and expensive downstream processing steps. 30,000 tons of succinic acid every year are still exclusively produced using fossil resources.
Now BASF Future Business GmbH and PURAC, a CSM subsidiary, have developed an economic fermentation process able to match the price target of oil-derived succinic acid – currently between $3 and $7 per kilogramme. “We will start industrial fermentation and downstream processing of biobased succinic acid of commercial quality and volumes in the second quarter of 2010,” announced Maren Bauer, the project manager at BASF. The firms will produce the compound in a PURAC 4,000-tonne yearly-capacity fermentation plant near Barcelona. “In a first step, we will focus on high-end applications such as nylon, polyester and polyol synthesis,” said PURAC marketing manager Hans van den Pol. According to both firms, low-cost succinic acid and its downstream products tetrahydrofuran, 1,5-butandiol or pyrrolidone have high potential as platform chemicals for a wide range of novel applications. Bauer expects the annual production of succinic acid to increase significantly if the bio-based process proves cost-effective. And according to van den Pol, cost-effectivity is always a question of scale.

Cost-effectiveness driving progress in biotechnology

Anaerobic fermentation based on the rumen bacterium Basfia succiniproducens is also good news for the climate. For every mole of sugars from renewable feedstocks or raw glycerol – a by-product of bio­diesel production – the patented bacteria consumes one mole of carbon dioxide. The process actively reduces the amount of atmospheric CO2.
“There are dozens of comparable processes under development that demonstrate that we are taking big strides towards a bio-based economy,” says Willy de Greef, the General Secretary the European association of bioindustries EuropaBio. But according to him, the success of green chemistry is heavily dependent on eliminating the regulations favouring petrochemical production that currently hamper biotech systems.
However, not all biotech processes are economically and ecologically sustainable. Replacing petrochemical with biotech processes will be dogged by complex and costly downstream processing steps, heavy investment for new fermentation plants and difficult integration of bio-based building blocks into current production flow sheets. That’s why the WWF and Novozymes have called for incentives to help industry adopt processes quickly – and these must offer financial advantages. According to BASF board member Stefan Marcinowsi, cost is what drives development – not ideology.

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