Well remember attending the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology event in Edinburgh in October 2010. The event was buzzing with hope for the emerging biobased chemicals sector, despite the perception that it was the neglected stepchild of the biotech revolution whereby biofuels commanded the larger share of attention from both the politicians and investors. Progress in industrial biotechnology advanced the introduction of metabolic engineering toolbox which promised, via engineered microbes, the production of complex molecules that are either currently very difficult, too expensive or simply too expensive to process. Maive Rute, the then EU’s Director of Industrial Biotechnology, said at the event that the emerging bioeconomy is set to worth € 2 trillion creating opportunities for some 2 million people. Almost 10 years later, the bioeconomy has not made the anticipated progress but rather faltered. The success of this sector matters to the sugar industry largely because sugar is the main feedstock in the production of a range of chemicals via engineered microbes (see table). As such, it offers companies in the industry a great opportunity to diversify, particularly since the production of substitute petrochemicals from the sugar platform represents a low volume high-value market. The French co-operative Cristal Union and the Godavari Biorefineries have taken the plunge with a foray into producing isobutene and a range of chemicals, respectively.
There are two compelling reasons why the many start-ups in the biotech space have not succeeded. First is that beyond the proof of concept in a laboratory, the journey to commercial scale has produced many casualties as conversion technologies succumb in the “valley of death”. Indeed, more often than not, step-up in scale involves necessary and significant changes in process technology. Further, the changes have to be cost-effective too. In their recent review, Kohli et al1 conclude that “Despite signiﬁcant advances, however, low yields, complex multistep synthesis processes, difﬁculties in puriﬁcation, high costs, and the deactivation of catalysts are still hurdles for large-scale competitive bioreﬁneries”. Underscoring this is the relative fragility of microbes (bacteria and fungi) engineered to produce the desired molecule. To put this into perspective, it is like agricultural trials going from relatively controlled greenhouse to field. In the latter, crops have to contend with weeds. The same is true for commercial-scale operations in biorefineries where wild microbes are a clear challenge and threat to a process.
With crude oil prices languishing at between US$50 and US$65 on average over the last five years, the emerging industry has had a hard time competing with the petrochemicals on a cost basis. Many of the start-ups came on the scene when the crude oil price was trading at US$100 or above when economics looked favourable. Alas most of these have exited the market including OPXBio, Liquid Light, Metabolix, Terracina (Solazyme), Plaxica, Segetis, GlycosBio, Coskata, Virent, Cobalt Technologies, Greencol Taiwan, TMO Renewables, Cereplast, Proterro, Mascoma, Zeachem and Biomer.
Policy interventions have simply been not supportive enough to prop up the bioeconomy sector. In the USA, federal agencies are encouraged to purchase biobased products.
Is there an alternative strategy for the fledgling sector to compete against the established petrochemical sector? In a seminal paper, Clomurg et al2 suggests that the biobased sector jettison from “the current model of industrial chemical manufacturing, which employs large-scale megafacilities that benefit from economies of unit scale” to one where “you can leverage an ‘economies of unit number’ model, which can be defined as a shift from a small number of high-capacity units or facilities to a large number of units or facilities operating at a smaller scale. Through increasing the number of units produced, this model can leverage cost reduction through mass production in which costs decline as cumulative output increases because of specialization in the production process and improved process and product design”.
1 Kirtika Kohli, Ravindra Prajapati and Brajendra K. Sharma (2019) Bio-Based chemicals from renewable biomass for integrated bioreﬁneries. Energies 12, 233; doi:10.3390/en12020233
2 James M. Clomburg, Anna M. Crumbley and Ramon Gonzalez (2017). Industrial biomanufacturing: The future of chemical production. Science, Vol. 355, Issue 6320, aag0804, DOI: 10.1126/science.aag0804