Renewable Chemicals Present Major Opportunity to Commercialize Industrial Biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology covers the application of biotechnology-based tools to traditional industrial processes (“bioprocessing”) and the manufacturing of bio-based products (such as fuels, chemicals and plastics) from renewable feedstocks. The evolution of our ability to manipulate microbial genomes has revolutionized the field of biotechnology and produced a rapid increase in innovation for industrial uses.
While biofuels have attracted a great deal of interest among the public, press and policy makers, renewable chemicals represent another major opportunity to commercialize industrial biotechnology in existing markets, at lower capital costs, and with potentially higher returns. A growing number of companies are now focusing on specialty chemicals as an entry point to build the bio-based economy.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) conducted an initial screening and categorization of renewable chemicals that could be co-produced as side streams of biofuels and bioenergy. The analysis yielded a list of 30 potential monomers with up to six carbon atoms that could be fermented from the sugars in biomass and serve as building blocks for more complex chemicals – as intermediates, novel products, or direct replacements for petroleum products. Twelve of these chemicals were designated as top targets for further research and development within industrial biotechnology.

A 2010 report from the World Economic Forum notes that while mandates for biofuel production around the world drive the market for biofuels, economics and sustainability criteria drive the smaller market for renewable chemicals. Increasing end-use market drivers for bio-based chemical products and applications are opening numerous opportunities to address industrial needs through the production and processing of biological materials. Early examples of commercially available products include several bio-based plastics with many applications ranging from cosmetics, home cleaning products and antifreeze to food packaging, drink bottles, car parts and more.

Increasingly, biobased chemicals are becoming cost competitive and represent a near-term opportunity for replacement of petrochemicals with renewable resources. Renewable chemicals and bioproducts from biorefineries continue to grow rapidly and gain increased market share.  While industrial biotechnology offers a clear value proposition, a number of hurdles need to be addressed to fully realize the commercial potential of bio-based products and chemicals. Fortunately, we seem to be on the path to commercialize these solutions and to build a worldwide bio-based economy, which is good news for business, consumers and our environment.

Read more in the Biotechnology Journal article written by Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Industrial and Environmental Section at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO); Dr. Janet Nelson, director of Business Development for URS Corporation; and Paul Winters, director of Industrial and Environmental Communications at BIO.