Industrial biotech's advance into the chemicals sector could be boosted by green practices and policies

Anna Lewcock/Brussels, Belgium

Industrial or ’white’ biotechnology has already begun to makes inroads into the chemicals sector, but with climate change and ’green’ practices high on the agenda, how much of an impact is it likely to have? This was one of the debates taking place at Green Week, the European Commission’s annual conference on climate change, held 23-26 June.

Biotech is undeniably a hot sector, becoming more prominent in areas such as the pharmaceutical arena while also maintaining its more established role in areas such as detergents. However, industrial biotech has also been growing steadily in the chemicals sector, and in 2007 six per cent of all chemical sales (a ?1.4 billion market) were generated with the help of enzymes - so-called ’white’ biotech. By 2012, this is expected to grow to 9 per cent.

Alongside the apparent advantages of lower cost, lower risk and higher margins, white biotech proponents tout the environmental benefits of lower emissions, less energy use and less use of finite natural resources. This reduced environmental impact in particular has prompted a surge in interest as the climate change agenda has come to the fore in recent years.

’Take vitamin C for example,’ says Camille Burel, industrial biotech manager at EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries. ’10 years ago it was all produced by chemistry. The chemical process was very complicated, involving 13 steps, and was very energy intensive. Using industrial biotech, you have your product in one fermentation step.’

Plastics push

Consultancy firm McKinsey and Company sees opportunities for biotech in the polymer market. The firm recently said that while innovation potential around chemical building blocks for polymers appears to have been largely exhausted, new bio-based building blocks could create the next wave of innovation in polymers. However, industry groups on both sides of the white biotech fence caution that widespread uptake will be slow.

Michel Loubry, regional director at industrial group Plastics Europe, does not expect biotech-related innovation to impact the polymer industry in the near future. ’It takes around 25 to 30 years from the invention of a polymer at the industrial level to successful introduction to market,’ he says. ’The majority of the plastics that we are going to sell in the coming 25 years are already on the market today.’

As for the development of so-called bioplastics, Loubry again does not see traditional plastics being driven out: ’Bioplastics are fine under conditions where [special characteristics] are needed. But any bio-polymer has different characteristics from fossil fuel-originated polymers. They are completely different - it is a stupidity to think that some may substitute others.’

Even though they have existed for 30 years, biodegradable plastics currently make up only around 0.3 per cent of the worldwide plastics industry, says Loubry. This lack of growth he puts down to the fact that there is simply no real use for such materials.


Burel says that it is inevitable that there will be some competition between the chemical industry and those active in white biotech, but says that many of the chemicals that enzyme-based approaches are likely to replace will probably eventually vanish from the market due to legislation such as Reach.

’In the chemicals industry you have two types [of company]; some that stay traditional and try to improve performance in their market, and others that make the switch [to biotech],’ says Burel.

’It is a very difficult switch to make in terms of capacity, and a number of companies such as DSM, DuPont and BASF are making it...but it still represent under a quarter of their sales.’

Any transition to biotech in the existing chemicals industry is likely to be gradual, says Burel. ’The change will be rather slow, enough for both industries to be able to adapt,’ she says. ’It takes years to replace a process in industry.’

The crunch

The economic crisis has, however, slowed the spread of industrial biotechnology. The chemicals industry has been hit relatively hard, which Burel says has caused firms to postpone research programmes.

In the medium term, raw material supply could hamper the industry’s growth in Europe, Burel adds. Europe is currently home to more than 75 per cent of the enzyme industry, where the main challenges are the price of, and access to, raw materials. Brazil has the cheapest sugar in the world, and the US has cheap biomass and subsidies (though land prices are an issue). In Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy is a sticking point as farmers are reluctant to move away from the subsidies and support offered under the scheme. Unless the expense of operating in Europe is addressed, through government support or subsidies, the industry will take their business elsewhere, says Burel.

’There are very big challenges,’ says Burel. ’But [industrial biotech] is something that is going to happen [on a larger scale] sooner or later as petrol prices become more expensive and we need a replacement.

’Issues like climate change accelerate the process, but it is already a trend in the industry and it will have its own path.’

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