More joint ventures as chemical companies chase biotech prizes

Paul Boughton
Links between biotech companies and chemical companies are becoming stronger as the search continues for sustainable sources of energy and raw materials. Sean Ottewell reports.

US company Metabolix, an industrial biotechnology company focused on developing clean, sustainable solutions for plastics, chemicals and energy, has revealed the latest advances in its search for advanced genetic engineering approaches to achieve high levels of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) in tobacco crops. The plastid genome of the research crop tobacco was engineered using Metabolix's multi-gene expression technology, resulting in fertile transgenic plants producing PHA at levels of up to nine per cent of the total plant weight. PHA levels of up to 17 per cent were found in leaf tissue. Metabolix's engineered tobacco plants produce 10 times more PHA bioplastic than previously published reports for tobacco.

PHAs are a family of renewable polymeric carbon storage materials, which have a broad range of industrial applications as performance, biodegradable bioplastics and as renewable starting materials for the production of a number of existing specialty and commodity chemicals.

According to the company, PHA bioplastics offer excellent performance in use and have the unique ability to biodegrade in a wide range of environments including compost, soil, wetlands, marine and anaerobic digestion facilities. As a starting material for the production of renewable chemicals, PHAs offer exceptional, highly efficient, low cost recovery and conversion opportunities for the production of a number of specialty and commodity chemicals. By producing PHAs directly in biomass crops, Metabolix plans to further improve the cost benefits, lifecycle performance and scale potential of renewable resource-based industrial products.

In a separate development, Telles - a joint venture between Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland - has announced that sustainable thermoplastics manufacturer Tecnaro is to incorporate Mirel bioplastic into its Arboblend line of thermoplastic compounds. These are are biodegradable in certain environments, including industrial composting and anaerobic digestion systems. The companies are working together on thermoplastic formulations using Mirel F1005 and P1003 injection moulding grades. The specific terms of the supply agreement have not been disclosed.

Mirel P1003 is a general purpose injection moulding grade with high modulus. Mirel F1005 is FDA cleared for use in non-alcoholic food contact applications, including frozen food storage, microwave reheating and boiling water. Mirel is suitable for a wide range of injection-moulded food service and packaging applications, including caps and closures.

Tecnaro customers are currently using Arboblend for a variety of products in the household and sporting goods markets. The new offering will combine Mirel with other biopolymers, including lignin, starch, cellulose, organic additives, natural resins or waxes, and natural reinforcing fibres. It will then be processed with injection moulding, extrusion, deep drawing/thermoforming or pressing into moulded parts, sheets or films.

The majors are involved

Total Petrochemicals, IFP Energies Nouvelles (IFPEN) and its subsidiary Axens have announced an alliance with the objective to develop a new optimised technology for the production of bio-ethylene by dehydration of ethanol. The proprietary technology will address large-scale units and the quality of the monomers will be in line with modern derivative production processes.

Based on Total Petrochemicals' original proprietary catalyst development, this new technology will open the way to a competitive production of bio-ethylene from renewable resources with lower energy consumption and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Bio-ethylene could be integrated in various polymer applications such as polyethylene (PE), polyethyleneteraphthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), polyvinylchloride (PVC) and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) in existing unmodified downstream polymerisation installations.

The goal of this co-development is to implement new catalysts, envisioning the highest possible carbon-yield for ethylene and to use advanced techniques to minimise energy consumption for the production of polymer-grade ethylene. Within the agreement, Total will continue its work on the optimisation of the catalyst formulation at the research centre in Feluy, Belgium. IFPEN will complete the process development at its Lyon site, France.

Axens will finalise this development and prepare the technology for commercialisation by ensuring the industrial catalyst manufacturing and by providing all process licensing related services to Total Petrochemicals and other potential customers.

The alliance is also covering other olefinic monomers production from bio-derived higher alcohols which will be developed in parallel within the same technology platform.

Solazyme, a renewable oils and bioproducts company, has announced that it is working with Dow to advance the development of Solazyme's algal oils for use in next generation, bio-based dielectric insulating fluids key to transformers and other electrical applications.

Fluid formulations

Under the terms of a joint development agreement, Dow will combine its extensive knowledge of speciality fluid formulations and dielectric insulation capabilities with Solazyme's feedstock capabilities to develop of a new class of algal oils tailored for optimised performance and cost in dielectric insulating fluid applications. The deal means that Dow can obtain up to 20 million gallons of Solazyme's oils for use in dielectric insulating fluids and other industrial applications in 2013 and up to 60 million gallons in 2015.

Solazyme ceo and co-founder, Jonathan Wolfson, commented: "Dow is a world-class organisation with enormous research, production and commercialisation expertise in a broad range of high-value and high-growth chemical sectors. In this initial joint effort Dow and Solazyme will work to tap into the greater-than 500 million gallon dielectric insulating fluids market with novel and breakthrough bio-based solutions. In parallel we are working with Dow to explore the use of Solazyme's algal technology and oils in a wide variety of products that Dow commercialises worldwide, to help provide high performance, environmentally sustainable and cost competitive solutions to a broad set of end users."

Finally, BASF and Swiss company Evolva Holding have signed an agreement for joint research on the design of novel and optimised biosynthesis routes for selected natural products with crop protection potential (Fig. 1).

"The collaboration with Evolva underlines BASF's approach to employ cutting edge biotechnology for the development of new specialty products," said Harald Lauke, president of specialty chemicals research at BASF.

The collaboration will initially cover two projects. BASF will pay Evolva an up-front technology access fee and ongoing research fees. BASF will have responsibility to take forward compounds produced during the collaboration and will potentially pay Evolva R&D milestone fees as well as royalties on products that result from the collaboration. This is Evolva's first collaboration in which its technology is applied to the agricultural sector.