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To enter biotechnological processes or not? What factors need to be considered? How does a chemical company select the best manufacturing route once it has entered the biotechnology arena?

These are some of the questions Dr David Johnson, Research Associate and Technical Leader of Biotechnology Process Development at Lucite International (LI), will consider as part of his talk at The Industrial Biotechnology Showcase, 11-12th February in London. Dr Johnson’s presentation, An Adventure in Biotechnology: Finding the Track to a Viable Bioprocess, aims to encourage firms to take up biotechnology-based manufacturing in the UK and provides his thoughts on how to go about research and development from scratch.

The Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum (IBLF) is an industry-led, Government-sponsored initiative that has been set up to drive a bio-economy in the UK. The IBLF delivery team and its associated partners’ second Industrial Biotechnology Showcase in London will bring together industry, academia and government agencies working towards a bio-economy. The focus will be on learning about innovative companies and new technologies while providing a forum for knowledge exchange and networking.

In 2007 LI recognised the need to provide methacrylates derived from renewable resources in the next decade, thus embarking on an adventure of transitioning to bio-based feedstocks as the raw materials for MMA production. This coincided with the recent agreement of nations to limit global warming to 2ºC, which would mean adhering to a tighter carbon budget. A recent article published by a well-known UK newspaper explained that the United Nations has warned about the need to cap greenhouse gas emissions to prevent ‘dangerous’ levels of climate change by 2100. If fossil fuels continue to be burned at the current rate then the world is on track to warm by more than 5ºC by the end of the century. A study by University College London (UCL) further suggests that globally, 82% of today’s coal, 50% gas and 33% oil reserves must be left underground which is why businesses need to find ways to lower reliance on fossil fuels.

However, despite all that, will a bio-route to methacrylates ever be cost attractive compared to fossil fuel derived options?

As a senior scientist for monomers’ chemistry research and leader of the ground-breaking Alpha technology development up until its transition to the pilot engineering phase, Dr Johnson was asked by Innovate UK to share his experience of starting up a biotech project in the UK with some Government funding at the IB Showcase. We took a peek behind the science scene and asked him some questions ahead of his presentation in London.

1/ Why has this need for bio-based products emerged?

LI, part of Mitsubishi Rayon Group, is the global leader in methacrylate production with over double the capacity of the second largest producer. We believe that it is critical for us to have access to a process that provides MMA from renewable feedstocks. In addition, there are several companies, which have decided that their future lies in the production of renewable chemicals that they believe can be sold at premium prices. They assume that there is ready customer demand for such materials (certainly true) and that they will get a premium price (less certain).

2/ Which chemicals are already offering biotechnological-based solutions that are more beneficial than their competitive, traditionally-based alternatives?

The main products are:

Ethanol – found in quantities of up to 10% in gasoline, and Ethene, its building block used for making polyethylene/polythene – the world’s most widely used plastic, are two good examples. Advances in biotechnology have led to Ethanol being produced from waste biomass using bacteria. This allows Ethanol to be processed from forestry waste, rice hulls etc., where the main crop can be grown as a food source. Synthetic Ethanol is a petrochemical product and in time it is expected to compete economically with fossil fuels, removing the need for an Ethanol fuel subsidy. The use of waste to produce Ethanol may also help solve the problem of disposal that has arisen since many places have begun to ban burning crop residues.

Lactic acid – widely used in the food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, chemical industries and found as polylactic acid in some polyester materials; It has received more attention as a monomer used for the production of bio-degradable poly (lactic acid), serving as a biodegradable commodity plastic. It can be produced either by biotechnological fermentation or chemical synthesis, but the former route taps into environmental concerns and the limited nature of petrochemical feedstocks. One of our competitors, Arkema, is selling a blend of polylactic acid and pMMA as a (partly) renewable material. In other applications, which do not compete with methacrylate-based polymers, the concentration may be up to 100%.

Surfactants – may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants. Surfactants based on palm oil, other natural oils or bio-ethanol have long been produced and marketed against fossil carbon-based equivalents.

MonoEthylene glycol (MEG) – used in the manufacturing of polyethylene terephthalate resins (PET) for bottling. PET bottles are made from 20% MEG and 80% PTA (purified terephthalic acid) by weight. Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle™ packaging is currently made with up to 20% sugar-based MEG and petroleum-based PTA hence 20% of the content is renewable.

There are many others for which processes are being developed, but it is not clear whether they will be successful in a price sensitive market place.

3/ How are we seeing this environmental aspect in every day requests as a business, perhaps in the form of recycled material?

The attitude of our customers is increasingly conscious of their environmental footprint. The coatings industry, for example, is focussed on reducing their carbon emissions and obtaining feedstocks for paint based on renewable resources. We, at LI, re-use more offcuts of acrylic than recycle since this is a more environmentally sound and economic strategy to follow. In addition, we have successfully marketed small pieces of sheet into applications, where only small quantities of the material – usually coloured Perspex®/LuciteLux® – are required by a customer, eg. for kitchen splash backs or jewellery. We still recycle, but it is more difficult in terms of accessing recyclable material, a main reason being ‘contamination’ of the PMMA with other materials such as masking and seals still in place on sheets.

4/ As a chemical company that has entered the biotechnology field, what did LI discover?

Anything is possible, but achieving a tangible process is very difficult.  A great deal of learning is required as the science behind biotechnology is very different from purely chemical routes.

5/ What do ‘renewable resources’ comprise of for LI, what does our research mainly focus on?

LI’s activity is exclusively on monomers since these are the building blocks for methacrylate polymers (pMMA). pMMA is largely a very high performance polymer with a wide range of applications and we have concluded that it would be difficult to develop biopolymers (ie. where the polymer is formed in a living organism) with adequate properties for a significant number of applications. In other words it would not be viable to produce biopolymers directly without first creating the biomonomers as their basis. On a positive note, a methacrylate from a renewable feedstock is identical to a fossil based methacrylate, so no new polymer formulations would be required to apply it when we develop the biomonomers.

6/ To conclude, do you think there is a place for bio-route based manufacture of MMA either alongside or in place of fossil fuel based raw materials?

Our Chairman and board of directors have all been very supportive of our research work and I believe we have demonstrated thus far that the best routes could be at parity or better than conventionally priced oil-based routes. There is certainly scope for more development work to be done on the bio-routes to MMA. However, there are still many technical challenges to overcome and a need to firmly establish a clear picture of the financials involved so that we can compare viabilities of the various route options. Our work is on-going on both technical and financial aspects. Meanwhile, the UK Government like many countries is very keen to see UK-based research developing competitive products and has also attempted to set up centres of excellence within universities to help newcomers and experienced companies alike. This is very encouraging and I certainly hope that we can continue to collaborate and learn from one another so that we can achieve real progress together.