Marcel Wubbolts: DSM is the first in second generation biobased

‘We had quite some response, and congratulations from peer companies too, as we announced our next step in the implementation of bioalcohol production from corn waste end January 2012, a joint venture of POET and DSM.’ Says Marcel Wubbolts, DSM’s newly appointed chief technology officer.
‘The knack in this technology is that we do not only process C6-sugars from cellulose to bioalcohol, using enzymes and specialized yeasts, but also the C5-sugars, which are not used by normal yeast. Of course this is of keen interest to everybody around the world, because the yield loss without C5-sugars amounts to 20-40%, dependent on your cellulose feedstock.’

Two-step process
‘We have managed to break down cellulose, using a thermally stable enzyme cocktail, to C5- and C6-sugars. Subsequently, both C5- and C6-sugars are processed to produce bioethanol. This combination of technologies is unique, and in this DSM is the front runner. Production on a fairly large scale in the Liberty pilot plant is the next step to implementation of our technology. We invest together with POET, our US partner, one of the largest in bioethanol production from corn. We supply the technology, POET has access to the feedstock (through the same farmers that supply corn kernels now), pretreatment technology of plant wastes, and bioalcohol production facilities, and can market the product. A perfect fit.’

Much more sustainable than existing technology
Marcel would like to put some perspective into the ‘Food versus Fuel’ discussion. ‘The first generation corn fermentation facilities have developed to such an extent that they can survive largely without subsidies. They produce a side stream, used as a high-quality fodder. The new process, which starts from agricultural waste as the cellulose resource, is even better because food and chemical feedstock are grown on the same land. The main advantage is that the cellulose based process is much greener than existing technology. Under the right circumstances, our process on balance might even absorb (as opposed to emit) CO2, very beneficial to the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emission savings. We could never have achieved the same result on the basis of corn processing. That is why our technology has been greeted with much enthusiasm.’
‘In Northern Italy we construct a large commercial plant for the production of biosuccinic acid, together with Roquette Frères. Chemical building block production from cellulose is one step more difficult than ethanol production. Therefore, in this process we still use C6-sugars from corn starch – not yet C5-sugars – as the feedstock, and produce biosuccinic acid from them using traditional glucose fermentation. Succinic acid is a chemical building block from which you can produce chemical intermediates higher up in the value chain. Like the biodegradable polymer polybutane succinate (PBS), tertahydro furan, and other derivatives. In some large-scale applications, succinic acid can replace presently used adipic acid. Succinic acid is a relatively small product yet, compared to for instance ethylene from petro chemistry, but we can produce it in a more sustainable and certainly more cost-effective way than from crude oil. We expect it to become an important feedstock for sustainable materials.’

Future growth
These steps are important and big for DSM. In 2020, DSM expects to have an additional turnover of one billion from its so-called EBA’s (Emerging Business Areas). The first EBA, Biobased Products & Services, consists of the aforementioned bio-based fermentation products like bioalcohol and biosuccinic acid. The second EBA, Biomedical materials, comprises biomedical applications, materials like surgical cord and other materials for application in the body, for instance for replacement of knee or spinal disks. A third EBA, called Advanced Surfaces, is in the field of development of antireflective coatings and the like. DSM´s aim is to develop EBA’s into full-fledged business units.

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