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Strong foundation for bio-based materials in Europe

06/01/2009

  • Experts interviews
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Bio-based product sales have grown rapidly in the past five years. Europe has an excellent research base, the world’s largest chemical industry infrastructure and solid development of bio-specialties

Armand Klein is director of bio-based products for science-based products and services giant DuPont. He joined the company in 1986 in Luxembourg, where he held various roles in operations. He moved to DuPont’s Safety Management Consulting Business Unit in 1999 as business development and project manager. He relocated to Warsaw, Poland in 2004, becoming regional director for DuPont Central Europe. In August 2007, he was appointed director, DuPont Applied BioSciences, for Europe, the Middle East and Africa; at the same time he became a member of DuPont’s European Leadership Team.

DuPont has considerable experience in bio-based products and is working to reduce its own global ecological footprint as well as helping customers with technologies to reduce their footprints. But technology alone is not sufficient – there is a need to work together. Bio-based products are already being used in everyday life as expensive oil is generating new markets and interest in their environmental advantages. There is a strong need for a coherent European policy agenda covering bio-based products as a whole.

How long has DuPont been involved in bio-based materials?

Historically DuPont has concentrated on chemicals, materials and related disciplines, with breakthroughs throughout the 20th century. Today, we are continuing to grow and prosper in these areas but, since the 1990s, we have added new dimensions to our traditional strengths – notably biological capabilities to be able to look for opportunities where more than one science comes together. This broad scientific approach led to the creation of the DuPont Applied BioSciences technology platform, with the aim of working with business units across the company on the development and commercialisation of bio-based solutions for a range of industries. Such materials use the broad range expertise of our researchers in biology, chemistry, materials science and engineering.

Are bio-based materials an important part of your business?

Indeed. DuPont has clearly identified the bio-based area as part of its strategy to achieve sustainable growth. In 2006, we announced a new set of sustainability goals with a target date of 2015. In particular, DuPont committed to grow annual revenues by at least US$ 2 billion (€1.6 billion) from products that create energy efficiency and/or significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions for customers.

We estimate these products will contribute to at least 40 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent reductions by our customers and consumers. By 2015, DuPont will also nearly double revenues from non-depletable resources to at least US$ 8 billion (€6.2 billion). This is because we have the experience and expertise to develop science-based solutions for the early stages of product development and processes that pass rigorous criteria for the use of renewable resources, energy, water and materials.

In the specific case of Europe, the potential for large, sustainably-produced agricultural feedstocks provides significant opportunities to produce renewably-sourced products. Europe also has strong political support for advanced concepts of sustainable production and a supportive regulatory framework. And the European Commission has committed to fostering the emergence of six lead markets where Europe has the potential to become a world leader and has identified bio-based products as one of them. As a result, Europe could be a leader on both policy and adoption of industrial biotechnology and biomass-derived products. In this context, it is worth mentioning that our largest partners in this field are European-born global companies Tate&Lyle, BP, British Sugar and Danisco.

Why use bio-based materials?

There are essentially two reasons. The first is that we will ultimately run out of oil, hence we have to look for alternative raw materials. The second is the need to reduce the environmental footprint of industry. Industry is often seen as a large polluter, but industrial pollution in fact has decreased substantially over the past 30 years in most western European countries. This is mainly the result of technology improvements. But current technologies will not be sufficient to achieve the ambitious objective set by the EU of becoming the world leader in fighting climate change. The development of a bio-based economy is one of the most promising new approaches to pollution prevention and resource conservation, and could actively participate in the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in 2020 and tackling climate change.

How are such materials used?

Today, technology allows us to produce a wide variety of products from biomass: antibiotics, citric acid, sorbitol, ethers, esthers, bioethanol, biobutanol, acrylamide, pigments, oils, fatty acids, polylactic acid, lactic acid, biopolymers, .... These building blocks translate into a number of finished products and substances of common use, such as textiles, fuels and plastics.

Do you see bio-based materials purely as substitutes?

To succeed in world markets, new biomaterials cannot be simple substitutes. They must result in products that are more environmentally sustainable with cost parity and performance superior to petrochemical-based equivalents. Today’s petroleum-based petrochemical industry will not be displaced anytime soon by renewably-based processes. However, technology – and particularly industrial biotechnology – will allow the production of a whole new range of materials that will take their place alongside classic petrochemicals. In some cases, they will coexist as a ready and preferred option, in other cases as a tough and direct competitor.

What benefits do bio-based materials offer?

Bio-based materials provide cleaner manufacturing processes, and renewable products and resources. They offer a realistic way to address critical global needs such as reducing reliance on petroleum in a sustainable manner, on the scale required, with the resources available. Investors, governments and consumers around the world are coming to this same realisation.

As an example, DuPont has developed a patented process to manufacture the bio-PDO™ monomer from renewable resources, instead of the previously used traditional petrochemicals. Bio-PDO™ is one of the first commercial-scale industrial applications of metabolic engineering designed to make a 100% renewably-sourced material from corn starch, and is the key element for many materials we use every day. The production of Bio-PDO™ has a much smaller environmental footprint than its petroleum-based equivalent. It has a broad range of applications in fibres, films, thermoplastics, detergents, cosmetics products, ink and several other industrial areas.

How safe are such materials?

The design data shows the production of Bio-PDO™, for example, consumes 40% less energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 56% compared with petroleum-based propanediol. This provides a substantial benefit in terms of safety, health and the environment. Moving down the value chain, a 100% natural ingredient made from Bio-PDO™ called Zemea® and developed for use in the cosmetics and personal-care categories was the first glycol to receive Ecocert® approval, an internationally recognised organic certification that guarantees the genuine practice of environmental respect throughout the formulation and manufacturing of a product. Zemea® is a high performance alternative to petroleum-based glycols and glycerine in cosmetic and personal care formulations where product purity level and low irritation properties are benefits.

How secure/sustainable are the resources required to make them?

As long as appropriate farming practices are used, renewable agricultural resources which can be harvested yearly – such as corn, wheat and straw – or after a suitable period of time, like wood, are sustainable and secure in the long term, much more than crude petroleum.

In the face of Europe's increasing dependency on fossil fuels, using biomass is one of the key ways of ensuring the security of supply for materials and energy in Europe. We need to increase the demand for biomass, improve supply, overcome technical barriers and develop research. And collaboration between industry and policy makers to set the appropriate regulatory framework is essential to ensure a sustainable use of biomass.

Does their production affect food production?

A combination of factors has recently put pressure on agriculture production, such as climatic conditions – heavy flooding and droughts in the last seasons – as well as the rapidly growing world population and the rising standard of living with the consequent growing demand for wholesome diets.

However, the current production of biomaterials does not have a major impact on food production. In Europe, for example, to avoid overproduction, until this year 10% of agricultural land was set-aside – representing the equivalent of around 4 million hectares or 20 million tonnes of grain, using average yields – to limit food production, with subsidies to farmers for non-production.

Now, new uses for agricultural products in non-food application have enabled farmers to use this land productively and subsidies have been removed – to the benefit of tax payers. When demand increases, the use of land will have to be regulated to ensure we produce biomass for both feed/food and non-food applications in an environmentally respectful and responsible way.

We believe that through technological innovation – notably biotechnology – and the adoption of modern farming practices, agriculture can meet the growing global demand for food, energy and materials. Biotechnological innovation will allow us to eliminate the competition in biomass for food and energy or materials, since we are working on the development of the use non-food renewable materials, including corn cob, switchgrass and sugarcane bagasse.

DuPont is also one of the founding members in the USA of the Alliance for Abundant Food & Energy, launched in July 2008. It is a coalition of leaders representing all aspects of the agricultural value chain that uses science-based information to increase support for today’s agricultural solutions and build an understanding of agriculture’s ability to fulfil the needs of the future.

Do you see the use of such materials growing?

Trends show that, in the past five years, sales of bio-based products have had a rapid growth. This is because they have a lot to offer and to Europe in particular. Europe has an excellent biotechnology research base, the world’s largest chemical industry infrastructure and knowledge base, and solid development and production of bio-specialties.

More information:

DuPont: http://www.dupont.com

Alliance for Abundant Food & Energy: http://www.foodandenergy.org español