The Future Belongs to Renewable Resources
Abstract: Degussa has held its first conference on natural raw materials and their importance for the chemical industry. The drift of the conference was that there is a plethora of possibilities for corn, plant oils, enzymes, and bacteria and that these possibilities are far from being exhausted.
Day after day, the world economy has been feeling the impact of crude oil prices, which are ranging between US$ 60 and 70 per barrel. But these same prices have also drawn more attention to renewable resources. The chemical industry, for example, already meets up to 8 percent of its de- mand for starting materials with renewable re- sources. “The change from fossil to renewable re- sources is one of the biggest challenges we face in the next 50 years,” said Dr. Alfred Oberholz, dep- uty chairman of the Management Board of De- gussa AG, at the BioRenewables Days.
Over 170 professionals from Germany and abroad met at the Marl Chemical Park for the Degussa sponsored event held on March 14th and 15th. In addition to Degussa employees and politicians, the conference attendees included countless scientists from universities and research institutes, as well as representatives from companies active in the area of renewable resources. For the two days of the conference, the experts focused on the industrial use of biorenewables, oils, fats and surfactants, and white biotechnology. Politicians on both the national and European level have recognized the need for all-out efforts in research and development to expand the use of renewable raw materials.
Financial assistance through the next EU framework program
“All the leading companies have announced their investment in the use of renewable raw materials,” said Dr. Christian Patermann of the Bio- technology, Agriculture and Food Directorate General of the European Commission. The im- portant thing now is that Europe play a key role in future developments.
This is why the European Commission in 2005 incorporated proposals and requirements for bio- renewables within the 7th EU Framework Program for Research, that covers the period from 2007 to 2013. “We in the EU must promote better and stronger industry-oriented research,” said Pater- mann. To this end, the EU Commission has planned to increase European investment in re- search and development to 3 percent of the gross domestic product, and strengthen private research.
Another proposal is the creation of a Europe-wide network to coordinate the wide range of activities. According to Patermann, there’s another figure that underscores the need for the “old continent” to act: “In the United States, investment in indus- trial biotechnology is ten times higher than in Europe.”
Dr. Peter Paziorek, parliamentary state secretary in the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), stressed the im- portance of renewable raw materials for Germany: “Biorenewable products reduce environmental pollution, because they lower CO2 emissions and reduce the amount of waste.” Not least, the cultivation and use of renewable raw materials ensure that the domestic agriculture and forestry industries have alternatives in production and income that benefit “the rural areas as a whole.”
According to Paziorek, the BMELV is earmarking an annual € 54 million for future research, development, and demonstration projects, as well as for market-launch projects. Despite cost-cutting pressures, this amount has already been budgeted for 2006. As in the past, the project will be spon- sored by the Agency of Renewable Resources (FNR), which was established in 1993 as an initia- tive of the federal government. Since its inception, the organization has promoted nearly 1,700 re- search and development projects.
FNR director Dr. Andreas Schütte took stock of the current biomaterials situation in Germany. Last year, the country grew about 1.4 million hec- tares (roughly 3.5 million acres) of renewable re- sources, which corresponds to about 12 percent of domestic farmland – a nearly five-fold increase since 1993. And in 2002 (the most recent figures), about one quarter of domestic timber, or 55 mil- lion cubic meters, went to bioenergy. “About 2.7 million metric tons of renewable resources go into bioproducts in the chemical, pharmaceutical and natural fibers industries,” says Schütte. The chemi- cal industry accounts for the lion’s share of 2 mil- lion metric tons. “This value contrasts with the roughly 17 million metric tons of petrochemical resources currently used by the German chemical and pharmaceutical industries,” says Schütte. Im- ports still account for the largest percentage of re- newable resources. Only one-third comes from domestic crops.
In Germany, Schütte sees opportunities for re- newable resources in four areas: biolubricants, bioplastics, fine chemicals, and bioenergy. At about 4 percent, the share of biolubricants is still extremely small, although a market share of 90 percent is a realistic projection. According to Schütte, this is because “biolubricants have techni- cal advantages that outweigh their higher costs.” Bioplastics, which currently represent a negligibly small share, have a potential of 5 to 10 percent. “Based on its market importance, the packing in- dustry will be a key consumer of bioplastics,” said Schütte.
Competition for agricultural land
With enzymatic and microbial processes, the industry already produces about 5 percent of fine chemicals. “According to experts, this percentage could climb to between 10 and 15 percent in the next five to ten years,” said Schütte. “Optimistic predictions even put the share as high as 20 per- cent over the next ten years.” Finally, bioenergy includes biofuels, wood for heat and electricity generation, and biogas. “If you add up the poten- tial of all agricultural and forest land, as well as biowaste in Germany, these sources could make up about 17 percent of all energy consumption in Germany,” said Schütte. In 2003, that share was 3.9 percent.
Schütte reminds us, however, that while renew- able resources have tremendous potential, they are not available in endless quantities: “consequently, there is competition between renewable resources and food production for agricultural land, as well as competition between the use of the resources as starting materials for bioproducts and for the gen- eration of bioenergy.”
Life cycle assessments can provide information about the environmental benefit of renewable re- sources for certain fields of application. Dr. Martin Patel of Utrecht University in the Netherlands re- ported on an environmental and economic as- sessment of around 15 white biotechnology prod- ucts. In this so-called BREW project (http://www.chem.uu.nl/brew), which was con- ducted with several industry partners Patel and his colleagues analyzed various biorenewables for their energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and land use, and compared them with the values for a current petrochemical process. Some biore- newables showed very promising results. The re- sults of the project will be published in the near future.
Dr. Michael Binder from the marketing de- partment in Degussa’s Feed Additives Business Unit reported on a life cycle assessment of techni- cally manufactured essential amino acids for the nourishment of poultry and pigs. Based on the nu- tritional requirements of the animals, such essen- tial natural animal feed as wheat, soybeans, peas and rapeseed will each result in different deficits of one or more amino acids. Pure amino acids can fill this gap quite effectively, and significantly improve the quality of the nutrition. The alternative is in- creasing renewable feed so that the animals receive an adequate amount of amino acids.
“We wondered which of these is environmen- tally safer,” said Binder. So the entire process was examined, from producing the crop to filling the feeding trough. “The total balance is significantly more advantageous with the use of technically produced amino acids, because it saves feed, and it creates less environmental pollution through nitrogen-fraught liquid manure, for example,” ex- plained Binder. As a result, the amino acids can be produced quite sustainably–no matter whether chemical or biotechnological methods are used. “The biomass that would otherwise have to be added to the feed can be better used for other applications.”
Sugar cane instead of crude oil
Dr. Jaime Finguerut of the Centro de Tecnolo- gia in Canavieira, Brazil, described a country’s ex- perience with using biofuels. For over 30 years, Brazil has been running a program called Proal- cool, which lays the framework for the nationally regulated admixture of 20 percent ethanol to the gasoline.
But the price of ethanol also dropped by roughly one-half between 1976 and 2005, so “we were forced to reduce costs,” said Finguerut. Be- tween 1978 and 2004, Brazil succeeded in boosting the efficiency of sugar cane production by 50 per- cent. According to Finguerut, “today, Brazil’s sugar cane costs as low as € 25 per dry metric ton” – a figure Germany can only dream of right now. Brazil has achieved this value by spending the last 30 years conducting intensive research on improved sugar cane plants. “Between the years of 1980 and 2000, for instance, we were able to in- crease the yield per hectare by 2 percent per year,” explained Finguerut. On the other hand, Brazil also has enough land to expand its sugar cane ca- pacities, and, he adds, “our present Brazilian fer- mentation process has several important character- istics that can be used in other fermentation proc- esses, particularly those based on sugar cane.”
The fact that other countries have recognized the importance of producing renewable resources, was confirmed by the assertions made by Prof. Douglas C. Cameron, director of Biotechnology in the research division of the U.S.-based food cor- poration Cargill. The company also supplies the chemical industry, and is further expanding its ca- pacities for this purpose. Take biodiesel, for ex- ample: Last year, Cargill announced that it would be quadrupling its annual output of about 110 mil- lion liters. Ethanol production is another example of Cargill’s fast expansion of production capacities.
“The costs of renewable resources have either stabilized or are continuing to drop,” Cameron statet. “This is why the decisive question is how much and how fast we can reduce process costs.” Cargill’s cost-cutting efforts are targeting biofuels as well as bioplastics and bioproducts. The Group is also interested in finding partners for this quest: “We see ourselves as a biotechnology company, as a developer of new platform chemicals. But we are not a chemistry company with access to com- pletely different markets.”
Degussa already supplies important raw materi- als for biodiesel. “We are the world market leader in alcoholate catalysts for transesterification proc- esses,” stressed André Noppe, head of marketing and sales for the Electrolysis Products & Alkox- ides Business Line of the Building Blocks Business Unit. These alcoholates are the most efficient cata- lysts for such tasks as increasing biodiesel yields by 2 to 5 percent. Another group of fine chemicals from Degussa is solid and liquid antioxidants for stabilizing biodiesel during transport. According to Noppe, “each filling or transport process reduces the oxidation stability of biodiesel by one hour.”
Degussa’s biodiesel portfolio also includes anti- foaming agents and polyamides for fuel lines.
Plant breeding is a long process
Using the example of plants for producing en- ergy, Dr. Ernst Kesten of the Einbeck-based com- pany KWS demonstrated that renewable resources raise completely different questions from the standpoint of breeders: “Conventional plants have an inadequate energy balance, and are too expen- sive.” This is why breeders are working on new energy plants that can supply maximum energy yield per hectare – a project that clashes with con- ventional breeding practices. The point now is to use the entire plant, not just increase the nutri- tional value of the fruit. And, according to Kesten, because the fruit no longer has to ripen, vegetation periods can be used more effectively. Kesten wants us to remember one thing, however: Breed- ing is a long, expensive process. “This is why it is important that breeders know the outlook for de- mand among future customers.”
Speakers from completely different fields high- lighted the wide range of applications for renew- able resources. Prof. Rolf Schmid from the Uni- versity of Stuttgart revealed in his presentation that, as valuable renewable raw materials, lipids make perfect substrates for biotransformation. To illustrate his point, Schmid discussed some of the lipids he and his colleagues had studied on behalf of industry, including biotechnologically manufac- tured substances for edible oils, nutritional sup- plements, and breast milk fat substitute.
Advantages of biomaterials
Dr. Rolf Blaauw of Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands also reported positive research results for functionalized fatty ac- ids. The focus of Blaauw’s research is biobased products such as adhesives, additives, solvents, and lubricants. Using epoxidized vegetable oil cured with polyacids, astounding properties for this two-component bioresin can be achieved. The institute has applied to patent the technology.
Prof. Peter Dürre of the University of Ulm, Prof. Bärbel Hahn-Hägerdal of the University of Lund, and Prof. Sven Panke of ETH Zurich em- phasized the future importance of enzymes and bacteria in the production of chemicals. Dürre used the Clostridium acetobutylicum bacterium to illus- trate its potential importance for the future pro- duction of solvents. ”After the genes have been identified that participate in solventogenesis, we will be able to optimize the gene expression” Dürre said. In the past few years, various research- ers have supplied important knowledge in this area, including ways of significantly enhancing the butanol production of Clostridium acetobutylicum.
In Sweden, Prof. Bärbel Hahn-Hägerdal re- searches the production of ethanol from pentoses, using yeast as the fermenting microorganism. “Our approach is to integrate process design, fer- mentation technology, enzyme technology, as well as metabolic and evolutionary engineering of yeast. For a biorefinery, it is crucial to find yeast strains that perform efficiently under harsh conditions,” said Hahn-Hägerdal. Several strains of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) have proven to be up to the task as demonstrated in a national Process Development Unit (PDU). In addition Sweden hosts a national pilot plant for the investigation and demonstration of complete process integra- tion. Hahn-Hägerdal and colleagues are also re- searching the production of other substances, such as low molecular weight acids and chiral com- pounds.
For his part, Prof. Sven Panke contemplates transferring complex cellular processes to biocata- lysis. The reason for this is the sometimes multi- stage nature of manufacturing steps in traditional fine chemistry processes, such as those used in the production of sugar-based therapeutic molecules in the pharmaceutical industry. Panke and his col- leagues are researching a system of biotransforma- tions. “The objective is to use the modular princi- ple to build an appropriate organism to supply the desired molecule,” said Panke. For this purpose, the EuroBioSyn Consortium, of which ETH Zu- rich is also a member, researches and adapts the dynamics of enzyme systems. The cost is enor- mous, but Panke is quite sure: “One day, it will be possible for a standard organism to function as a microfactory.”
This same optimism imbued the entire two-day conference: Through intensive research and devel- opment, and with the right political environment, Europe can join the ranks of the serious players in the use of renewable resources. The important thing is not to try to do everything, but to step up activities that make sense technologically, geo- graphically, and economically, so that Europe can catch up with or even outdistance other industrialized nations.