DSM, a smart player in the biobased economy

There is a big opportunity for the Dutch chemical industry beyond bulk products. A small country, with a strong agro-food sector and specialized technology, should aim to develop knowledge and higher-value products in the biobased economy. One of the first companies to grasp this truth was DSM. During several decades it shifted its focus to superior and sustainable technology, and is now one of the world leaders in white (industrial) biotechnology. Led by its CEO, Feike Sijbesma, trained in biotechnology and management, DSM is the first company in the world that can transform the complete cellulose fibre into valuable products. That is quite a lead, DSM has taken.

The latest achievement is cooperation with the American company POET in the field of second generation biofuels from corn waste streams. In the USA, during the past few years some 400 biorefinery installations have been built that directly transform maize into bioethanol. As a valuable side product, they produce high-quality feed ingredients from the proteins in the corn. The use of arable land to produce fuels has incited a fierce discussion on food and fuel. Feike Sijbesma, DSM’s CEO: ‘Thanks to our technology, we can now cost-effectively produce biofuel from waste streams of agriculture and from non-edible plants, so-called cellulose-derived ethanol. A technology that will change the food versus fuel discussion into food and fuel. Because this technology only uses agricultural waste to produce biofuels. DSM is the first party in the world that managed to master all the steps in this process, to break down cellulose fibres and use every component of them in an industrial process.’

Billions of litres of second generation biofuel
POET is one of the largest ethanol producing companies in the US. DSM now joins that company in biofuels on the basis of cellulose. That means to say: together they build the first $ 250 million factory with a capacity of 75 million litres of alcohol (ethanol, biofuel) per year. Starting up late 2013. POET has the knowledge of supply and pre-treatment of the resources, and the distribution of the final product, while DSM supplies the technology for two important steps in the heart of the process: the enzymatic treatment of cellulose to sugars, and the fermentation of these sugars to ethanol. With respect to quantities, these are minute when compared to the amount of fossil fuels we still use nowadays, but DSM expects that in the foreseeable future at least 250 of factories of this type will be constructed to produce billions of litres of this advanced (second generation) biofuel. That would easily amount to a turnover of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.

The first factory will not per chance be constructed in the US. They have the biggest market for biofuels. The second market is Brazil. “We are studying to enter that, too.’ In Europe and Asia developments are slower, but they will catch up in the course of time. Feike Sijbesma: ‘We concentrate on development and use of technology. Subsequently, we employ it as well, but we will be especially keen on selling licenses. DSM sees as her mission: develop useful technology for green processes in industry, making use of the enormous quantity of knowledge the company has in traditional chemistry and biotechnology.’ Within the biobased economy.

Chemistry and agriculture, together one third
Developing knowledge is one of the main strengths of Dutch companies, together with the Dutch research centres. Iit is a big opportunity for the Netherlands and the world. Feike Sijbesma: ‘The Netherlands have a large, high-quality chemical industry and one of the most advanced agro-food sectors in the world, with a high scientific level and a highly organized cooperative structure. Both sectors have about a 15% share in Dutch industrial production. That is more than anywhere in the world, and the scientific level is higher than anywhere: in chemical technology in the fields of catalysis and processing technology, coupled with a very high productivity in agriculture and cattle-breeding. There are many interfaces between chemistry and agriculture. The biobased economy is an excellent opportunity to combine these two sectors. Both in production of excellent industrial products – we do have to show that we have the ability to do that – and in the development of superior technology that we can sell elsewhere.’

And it should be done now. We will have to become less dependent on oil, and develop sustainable energy technologies. We have gone a century into the fossil age by now, and we have benefited from it, also in the chemical industry. But the transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable resources and ‘back to the land’ (including other sustainable resources like sun, wind and water) must begin now. Just like we did in the past, but this time with new technologies. We have ‘topped the peak’ of the fossil era: a new (bio-based) era has begun. An era characterized by a circular economy that must be started as the current era will someday switch over.

What can the Netherlands do in that new circular economy? Feike Sijbesma: ‘The Netherlands can excel in two ways in this new bio-based era, according to the former Innovation Platform: wind at sea, and biomass. And as a corollary, the green knowledge economy also offers the opportunities to produce and export high-quality products. We see industrial biotechnology as the outstanding opportunity for the Netherlands. And certainly for us, DSM, with our two big research centres in Delft and Geleen.’

Europe and the United States
DSM’s strategy is not merely directed towards biofuels from cellulose in the United States. In Europe, biofuels hardly have begun to take off. Feike Sijbesma: ‘In Europe we concentrate (for the time being) on green chemistry and green materials, which are at least as important for the biobased economy. Just like the petrochemical industry was a spin-off of fossil fuels, green chemistry is a spin-off of renewable resources, or a combination of both. In Northern Italy DSM, with its French partner Roquette, constructs a large commercial factory that will annually produce 5 to 10 kilotons of succinic acid from corn starch. Biosuccinic acid is an important chemical building block used for biopolymers and plastics.’ But that is just the start. On the basis of its knowledge and technologies, DSM is going to produce other chemicals, like adipic acid, starting material for several nylons, among others. Feike Sijbesma: ‘As yet we cannot perform these processes from cellulose on the basis of agricultural waste, but as soon as we have completely mastered the process of ethanol production from corn waste, we are going to diversify. Both towards new end products, and towards new resources. Wheat straw, for instance; or beet waste.’ In doing so, DSM will make great strides into the fuel market in the USA and into industrial biotechnology for chemical products in Europe. And in both instances as the frontrunner, thanks to in-house development of new technology.

Green biotech
DSM has been the leader in industrial biotech for some time, being the producer of semi-synthetic penicillins, cephalosporins and other products in red biotechnology (pharmaceutical production). In green biotechnology, in which field DSM is not active, almost the whole world has turned to genetically modified food commodities, like rice, soy and corn, and other products like cotton. But not so Europe. Concerns about the long-term effects of these products on the consumer, and the influence of several NGO’s who aren’t in favour of it, have stalled the use and benefits of green biotechnology in Europe. Although at least 80 studies have been performed by the European Commission into its effects. Every study showed a positive result for the new green biotech, but in spite of that Europe does not move against the will of its consumers.

That long standing criticism of European customers also holds for the production of non-edible crops, like energy crops for the production of biofuels or chemical base products. That entails that land that is not fit for food production, cannot be employed optimally as yet for other biobased goals like biomass production.

‘The concern for its consumers and for food is an important political issue in Europe, but as a consequence, companies research European plants rather less. Business is more directed towards other parts of the world. Notwithstanding that, Europe, and the Netherlands too, have an enormous potential for industrial and biobased development. If based on scientific and technological knowledge. In some places, that green development offers fewer opportunities than in others, but in the Netherlands all factors for a biobased economy combine very nicely. There is a huge opportunity here that we may not forgo.’ Says DSM’s Feike Sijbesma.

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