Friday, 8 February 2013

Bio-economy needs innovation in supply chain

Most, if not all, major chemical producers and major agriculture combines are looking at the potential for renewable raw materials to replace petrochemical feedstocks, in some areas of their operations at least.
Chemical companies are striving to embrace bio-based production to ensure their long-term sustainability. But there are many issues to resolve and questions to answer
And it is not just the majors that are investing heavily into the required technologies. Small, hi-tech start-ups are often leading the way in technology terms. Many have been lured in and supported by the huge political push in North America and Europe for alternative fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel.
But increasingly, these firms are focusing on devising routes to chemicals from biomass, as the market and prospects for further fuels investment stalls due to concerns over subsidies and the nonfood use of crops.
The stimulus from the fuels sector to the use of renewable raw materials to make existing and new chemicals and materials has been beneficial, however. Not only has it kick-started production on a scale not seen before, but it has begun to show how the logistics of using crop-derived materials might be managed to enable widespread production of chemical inter-mediates and products such as polymers, surfactants, solvents and lubricants.
"The stimulus from the fuels sector to the use of renewable raw materials... has been beneficial"
The problem is that in the main, the feedstocks - starches, sugars, cellulose and oils and fats - are produced in rural areas, away from industrial production centres, and in low density. Thus the bulky raw materials have to be transported over some distances, adding significant costs and environmental impacts.
Before the bio-based economy can truly begin to play a significant part in industrial output, such problems will need to be solved at technical and economic levels.
Another major challenge to overcome is to bring bio-based products to the market in a profitable way. The goal of many companies is to develop higher value-added bioproducts, but before these can be successfully introduced, companies have to produce lower value-added products, simply to fund development costs and to prove the technologies involved.
The slow adoption of biopolymers competing against well established petrochemical-derived materials is a salient example. With costs driven down over many years of production experience, conventional polymers are cost-effective in their areas of application. Bio-polymers have to compete on niche performance benefits or on their green credentials.
Perhaps a more rational way, and one that is being used by several technology start-ups, is to produce bio-based intermediates, such as ethylene and butanediol, that can be used in conventional reactions to produce existing products. There is then little or no market development needed and the bioroute has only to prove it can make biointermediates that are identical to oil-based intermediates.
The drawback here, say some, is that the established chemical industry in Western economies will see this as a way of going half-way down the green route, and will still operate its large chemical plants to produce conventional products albeit from renewable resources.
The risk is that emerging economies and technologies will leapfrog them to develop truly green products that are more competitive in the longer term. India and China are certainly looking at bio-based production and, given raw material availability and an innovative approach, could certainly produce some interesting and surprising developments.
A third route, now being opened up, is to use bio-based feedstocks to produce a range of novel intermediates that can then be used to produce products in well-known families. Thus succinic acid is receiving a lot of attention at the moment and can be used in the production of polyurethanes, coatings, solvents, thermoset resins and so on.
Further into the future lies the concept of the biorefinery, whereby a range of bio-raw materials will be converted using a variety of techniques into a range of chemical intermediates, ready for downstream conversion. This approach is today still in basic research but has very large potential.
QUESTIONS BUT NO ANSWERS?
All of the above raises as many questions as it does answers. What makes a location competitive for green chemistry, and which routes are the most promising in terms of technology and market reception? Can a bio-based economy be established on imported feedstocks or should these be locally available? Is fermentation of sugars the best route forward or production via bio-syngas?
Even more fundamentally, should companies start investing in technologies and market introductions even before government incentives or legislations are fully in place? And how should agricultural business chains collaborate with the chemical and materials industry and the sector of transport and logistics?
Later this month, ICIS and NOM, the Investment and Development Agency for the northern Netherlands, are hosting a high-level Roundtable in Amsterdam to discuss many of these issues. The outcomes of the discussion will be reported in a future issue of ICIS Chemical Business. For more information on NOM and how it aids investment in Northern Netherlands

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Change of platform for this blog

Hi! This will be the last post on this blog on this platform. From today I'm transfering Chemicals and Innovation to a new site, under the slightly different name of ICIS Chemicals and Innovation, to reflect the fact this is part of the ICIS free online offering. You can see more of ICIS and its other blogs at www.icis.com

You can find me and all I've written so far at this address: http://www.icis.com/blogs/chemicals-innovation/. I hope you'll continue to follow the news and opinion on innovation in the chemical sector.

If you are interested, you can also follow the progress of the ICIS Innovation Awards 2011 at www.icis.com/awards. These were launched mid-April and the deadline for entries is 4 July.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Quick source of innovation ideas

Keeping up with my fellow bloggers on innovation, I came across this useful list of articles that had generated plenty of traffic on innovation strategy in April. It's on the Blogging Innovation site, which I have referred to previously and find has good articles on general innovation if not always chemical.

Also featuring here this week is another look at open innovation - and the main road blocks that have to be addressed to make it work.

It's by Paul Hobcraft, who runs an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations' core capabilities

Monday, 9 May 2011

DSM, Roquette scale up bio-route to succinic acid

Innovation in the bio-based material sector continues to make ground. Amongst latest news is the decision by Netherlands-based major DSM to proceed with a 10,000 tonne/year commercial-scale facility for bio-succinic acid in collaboration with France's Roquette Freres. The plant, using yeast fermentation of crop-based materials, will be built on Roquette's site in Cassano Spinola in Italy, and be onstream in the second half of 2012.

Succinic acid can be used in packaging to footwear
Succinic acid is a chemical building block that can be used in the manufacture of polymers, resins, food and pharmaceuticals, says DSM, and provides an alternative to fossil-fuel based intermediates such as adipic acid and 1,4-butanediol. The two partners already have a demonstration plant running flat out in Lestrem in France and intend to create a joint venture company, Reverdia, to carry out business together.

Rob van Leen, chief innovation officer of DSM, commented: "The time is right to capitalize on the tremendous progress we have made together with Roquette in the last two years. Our proprietary yeast-based fermentation process not only allows cost effective production; it also eliminates salt waste and other by-products and thus improves the overall eco-footprint of end-products. This bio-based chemical building block is a substitute for various fossil feedstock derived monomers and proves that the bio-based economy is no longer a distant prospect."

And at an event in North America, DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma commented: "The so-called fossil-age will make a shift to the bio-based-economy. In two or three centuries from now, people will look back on our civilization as a merely brief moment in history where we in a period of just about 250 years shifted our total economy to coal, oil and gas. To make the shift back to living with, and especially off, nature, we need to start this shift now. We are at a turning point towards a next green industrial revolution to secure our feed and fuel needs in the future."

Sijbesma was receiving the prestigious George Washington Carver Award for Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology in recognition of his outstanding contribution and vision to the development and innovation in industrial biotechnology. He delivered a keynote address during a plenary session of the 2011 World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bio-processing in Toronto, Canada.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Tree bark may be used in polyurethanes

News has just come my way that Huntsman Polyurethanes is to join the Bark Biorefinery Consortium Project, a four-year Canadian joint venture between academia and industry that is exploring how best to extract value from tree bark, a forest residue left over by the lumber industry.

The collaborative research program has a total budget of Can$5.25m and is being funded by the province of Ontario together with participating institutions and industry partners. As part of consortium activities, representatives from Huntsman’s CoreScience unit in the US will work closely with scientists from the University of Toronto, who are leading the project.

Leveraging combined academic and commercial know-how, the Huntsman team will focus on one core element of the initiative: converting bark into value added intermediates for polyurethane to achieve improved properties and more renewable content. Previous research in this area has shown that incorporating bark products into other polymers can result in improved thermal stability and fire resistance, as well as improved adhesive properties. 

Niek van Wiechen, Global CoreScience Director at Huntsman Polyurethanes, said: “When the University of Toronto invited Huntsman to join the Bark Biorefinery Consortium, we leapt at the chance. The program has many parallels with our own corporate research and development (R&D) strategy. Huntsman is committed to developing renewable technologies that increase the natural content in our products, provide cost effective solutions for our customers, and offer significant sustainability benefits. This is a great opportunity to turn forest residue into valuable commercial products.”

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Open innovation at P&G

The chemical industry is gradually getting to grips with open innovation (OI) - as this article from the UK's Royal Society for Chemistry by Sean Milmo, also a regular writer for ICIS, sets out.

DSM is a leading exponent, even boasting a vice president for open innovation in the form of Rob Kirschbaum, a long-standing friend of ICIS. You can see more of its commitment to open innovation in a detailed and informative presentation by Rob van Leen, the company's chief innovation officer.

P&G, it seems, has been using OI for many years, and has not so long ago (10 years) formalised the approach as Connect + Develop, as outlined in this interesting blog on Forbes by Deborah Mills Schofield.

She argues that "P&G has created more value together with their OI partners than they ever could have alone. It is a real ecosystem that creates value on a global scale to accomplish P&G’s mission: '…improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come'.”

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

IYC art exhibition at SusChem Amsterdam meeting

ICIS is looking forward to its collaboration as media partner with SusChem, the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry. Two editors will attend the upcoming SusChem annual stakeholder day event in Amsterdam on 17 May.

Participants at the meeting will have the opportunity to take an exclusive preview of an international art exhibition. During the lunch interval the exhibition “Our Children on Water” will take place. Created by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) as a contribution to the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) this unique international art exhibition consists of artwork created by children from three African and six European countries depicting the role that water plays in their lives.

The three African countries involved are South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia and the photo above (Copyright Zoe Heaton) shows children from Abyot Public School in Ethiopia getting involved. The artwork has been produced under the title 'Water: Refreshment or Responsibility?' The resulting collection of artwork displays breathtaking imagination and shows children's views on water from many different, thought-provoking perspectives. The artwork in addition helps to draw attention to the role of chemists in industry and academia in providing safe and clean water around the world.

European tour
The exhibition will take place in Beurs Van Berlage in Amsterdam on 17 May. Following exhibition at the SusChem Amsterdam event "Children on Water" will tour major European cities including London, Frankfurt, Prague, Rome and Barcelona throughout 2011 in collaboration with a number of European and African chemical societies.


The official launch for the exhibition will be held at the European Parliament in Brussels in June. The "Our Children on Water" project is a high profile exhibition that serves to showcase the chemical community’s involvement in the pursuit of clean and safe water for everyone.