Biotech Takes on New Industries

With a little help from biotechnology, corn stalks, saw dust, and garbage can be converted into a fuel that could potentially reduce gasoline consumption by 25%, according to Iogen in Ottawa.

Susan Warner(swarner@the-scientist.com)
Feb 27, 2005
<p></p>

Photos courtesy of Genencor

With a little help from biotechnology, corn stalks, saw dust, and garbage can be converted into a fuel that could potentially reduce gasoline consumption by 25%, according to Iogen in Ottawa. The company reached a milestone in the energy sector last April by opening the world's first demonstration plant that converts cellulose to ethanol. Iogen's demonstration plant uses genetically enhanced enzymes to break down the cellulose in plant waste to create ethanol.

"We feel that we're ready to go," says Jeff Passmore, executive vice president of Iogen. "We have an operating demonstration plant here with one million gallons a year capacity. It's small compared to a commercial plant, but it's huge compared to what anyone has done before." The company is now negotiating with governments to construct a full commercial plant in North America or Europe.

Now that biotechnology has established its place in today's global...

THE CHEMICAL CONNECTION

<p/>

Industrial biotechnology is already starting to have an impact on the chemical industry. Novozymes of Denmark is the world's largest producer of enzymes and microorganisms, with more than 700 products in its portfolio. The company's products can be used to replace traditional chemicals in industrial processes and speed up chemical reactions.

The company has a 45% share of the global enzyme market, which is valued at $2 billion, according to Glenn Nedwin, president of the company's US subsidiary, Novozymes Biotech. For example, the company produces degumming enzymes that reduce oil loss and waste-water in the oils and fats industry. Novozymes also makes auxiliary enzymes that are used in the brewing industry to reduce maturation time. In baking, industrial enzymes can reduce production costs by replacing traditional emulsifiers and chemical oxidants.

The environmental benefits of using biotechnology in industrial processes will foster future growth, says Nedwin. He adds that because industrial biotechnology uses substances that occur in nature, such as plant waste, there is no toxic chemical residue. The resulting products are also biodegradable, saving landfill space occupied by materials produced through synthetic chemicals, such as traditional plastics derived from petroleum. The processes often use less energy and conserve water, compared to conventional production, particularly in the textile and pulp and paper industries. "We're talking about attacking the issue of petroleum reserves and renewable natural resources," he says.

PLASTICS ARE KEY

Genencor International of Palo Alto, Calif., which makes healthcare and agricultural products, is also building its industrial business. Genencor and DuPont have engineered Escherichia coli to produce 1,3-propanediol, or PDO, which is used to make a polyester fabric marketed by DuPont as Sorona. The company also supplies enzymes to a bioplastics plant that Cargill Dow operates.

The use of biodegradable plastic could reduce plastics in the waste stream by as much as 80%, according to a report, "New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment," that BIO issued in June 2004. If all plastics were made from bio-based polylactic acid, oil consumption used in manufacturing processes would decrease by 90 million to 145 million barrels per year, according to the report.

Industrial enzymes are being used increasingly in laundry and dishwashing detergents and in processing textiles, says Jack Huttner, vice president of communications at Genencor. "As the market moves to cold-water washing temperatures, which the Department of Energy is recommending, we're going to see increasing enzyme payloads in detergents," he says. "Households around the world can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing hot water demand. That's a development to watch for the next two to five years."

So far, industrial biotech has not faced the same kind of opposition that has trailed the use of genetically modified (GM) organisms in agriculture. Doreen Stabinsky, science advisor at the environmental group Greenpeace International, says concern about the industrial use of GM organisms has been less intense than in agriculture. She says this is because the organisms are generally kept contained in bioreactors inside factories, and not deliberately released into the environment as they are in agriculture.

Stabinsky says, however, that GM organisms used in industry could possibly escape through the discharge of factory waste, which could have adverse environmental consequences. "There are definitely environmental concerns generally with genetically engineered bacteria, but because they are maintained in contained facilities, the spotlight just has not shone on that yet," she says.

Huttner says Genencor's facilities comply with federal and state environmental regulations. He adds that the GM organisms would not be able to survive in the environment, because they are fed special diets to perform up to industrial standards.

In November 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is considering new rules regarding the nomenclature of industrial enzymes, which would allow the agency to better distinguish between new biotechnology-derived chemicals and existing ones. The agency regulates industrial enzymes under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

CHALLENGES ON THE HORIZON

Despite increasing interest, industrial biotech still faces hurdles, primarily the need to develop commercial markets for new technologies. Iogen is now trying to arrange financing for a commercial plant that would convert waste agricultural products to ethanol for use as transportation fuel. Passmore says the company is negotiating with governments to provide loan guarantees in the range of $200 to $250 million to build a biorefinery, which would cost $300 to $400 million. He says it is always difficult to arrange debt financing for new technologies.

"There's a lot of people who want to be first to build plant two," he points out. At the same time, new industrial biotechnology must compete with existing products manufactured in plants that were paid off decades ago, such as today's oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants.

Huttner says industry is capable of producing bio-based products, but the cost of doing so prevents manufacturers from making the switch. Genencor and other companies with industrial biotechnology products are gaining ground slowly by carving out premium niches, he says.

"It's hard to compete with a new technology in a new product against something that's been integrated and perfected for over 100 years," he says. "It's no longer a technical challenge as much as a commercial challenge."