BIO roundtable: feedstock flexibility key in biochemical industry

By Anna Austin
Posted June 16, 2009

The Biotechnology Industry Organization held a reporter roundtable June 11, at which four representatives of companies focused on commercial biorefinery development emphasized the current and future opportunities in the biochemical industry, and provided technology progression updates.

"What we mean by a biorefinery is facility that integrates the production of biofuels, energy and value-added chemicals or plastics from renewable sources of sugar, similar to the current petrochemical industry but with flexible feedstocks," said roundtable moderator Paul Winters. "While biofuels have gained a great deal of attention within the past few years-and a long list of feedstocks have been proposed for making them-fuel is just one of the many chemicals that can be made."

Winters said three years ago, consulting firm McKenzie and Co. projected that biobased chemical production would account for 10 percent of the $1.5 trillion worldwide annual chemical market by 2010. "According to a recent study by the UK Industrial Biotechnology Innovation & Growth Team, that market is worth $164 billion globally today-above the 10 percent mark-and the demand for plant-based biochemicals could generate sales of nearly $600 billion by 2025," he said. "So while fuels are expected to make up a third of that market, there are many other products that would include chemicals from renewable feedstocks."

Wes Bolsen, CEO of Coskata Inc., emphasized the importance of feedstock flexibility, and how it will solve sustainability, energy security and economic growth issues. "We (Coskata) have the ability to co-locate with sugar mills, pulp and paper mills, and retrofit corn ethanol plants-key things that Secretary Vilsack and others are talking about-that will make current first-generation biofuels even more sustainable and better," he said

Coskata's first commercial-scale facility, employing its biological fermentation technology, is expected to open in late 2010.

Tim Eggeman, Colorado-based ZeaChem Inc. cofounder and chief technology officer, reiterated the importance of feedstock flexibility, as well as the need to grow crops specifically dedicated to biofuel or biochemical production. "All the logistics associated with collecting (agriculture) residues can be done at relatively small plants, but if you're really serious about contributing 30 percent of the nation's energy use out of renewable fuels, a dedicated feedstock system is going to be needed," he said, adding that collocating biorefineries with farms that are growing the feedstock will create tight logistical ties.

Eggeman said ethylene, an intermediate used to make plastic bags and a main chemical of one of Zeachem's technology platforms, represents an approximate $26 billion market in the U.S. Propylene, a fuel blending component and also used to make plastic, constitutes a $10 billion market in the U.S., he said.

ZeaChem plans to break ground on its first biorefinery in Boardman, Ore., by the end of 2009.

Biochemical company Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling and enzyme development company Genencor scientist Maggie Cervin also spoke during the roundtable.