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White Biotech Strategies of Large Corporations: Hopes & Challenges

SpecialChem / Jean-Pierre Molitor – Jan 30, 2012

Within few weeks two large corporations, BASF & Archer Daniel Midlands (ADM) have made opposite announcements around the same overall subject. BASF invested in a company which proposes a singular technology to transform biomass into fermentable sugars while ADM at the very end of the same biochemical value chain decided to exit from its bioplastic's JV Telles. Both decisions point the current perceived risks and uncertainty in the white biotechnology field: on one hand biorefinery concept as an alternative to a petrochemical feedstock's and on the other hand the scale-up of fermentation processes to economic viable and attractive margins.
The costs for the current main fermentation feedstock, glucose from starch hydrolysis, makes it difficult for biotechnology companies to achieve viable costs for drop-in chemicals like acrylic acid or succinic acid if positioned as direct replacement for petrochemical feedstock’s at least in the northern hemisphere. The use of cheaper, processed, cellulosic biomass is therefor considered as a matter of long term viability and "sine qua non" condition for the expansion of biotechnology production to basic chemical intermediates.
Many biotechnology companies actually circumvent the immature biomass conversion issue in the US (or Europe) by deciding to run the first commercial large scale fermentations in Brazil because the local cane sugar is today the cheapest feedstock and the entire supply infrastructure exist (e.g. Amyris).
Today the three main options to use biomass as feedstock are

  • Biochemical platform
  • Thermochemical platform to generate syngas (for fuels consumption or chemical feedstock)
  • Algae platform: use algae biomass as feedstock for fuels & chemicals

  • Several renowned companies use a combination of biochemical & thermochemical technologies to optimize the treatment of the full biomass

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