With an industry worth €3.5Bn, butanediol is an important chemical intermediate. Novamont has recently opened the first industrial plant to produce bio-butanediol from sugars, using engineered E. coli.
Biotechnology is a key driver in replacing fossil fuels with renewable raw materials, so companies and academia are busy creating ways to produce different chemicals from biomass. Examples include Imperial’s and Turku’s collaboration for biopropane and Global Bioenergies’ isobutene, which landed a major deal with Audi as a fuel additive.
Bio-based 1,4-butanediol is now making its industrial debut in Rovigo, Italy, as Novamont opens its new Mater-Biotech plant. This chemical is used in many applications, including a number of solvents and plastics. As such, it has a market of around €3.5Bn per year – and it’s expected to grow to over €6.5Bn by 2020, with a production of 2.7M tonnes. This new plant can contribute to this growth with 30k tonnes of its greener alternative.
Instead of being derived from butane obtained in an oil refinery, this biobutanediol is made with an engineered strain of E. coli, using sugars. The strain was developed by Genomatica, a California-based Biotech. The technology had already been shown to work on commercial scale in a collaboration with DuPont back in 2013. However, Novamont appears to be the first ‘to put a ring on it’ – that is, to establish a dedicated industrial plant.
According to Novamont, its process to make butanediol has at least 50% fewer emissions of CO2. What sugars the process uses exactly, I couldn’t find out. The whole point is, of course, to use sustainable sources of raw materials, such as wood residues, and integrate a local sustainable agriculture – quite a booming field in Italy. However, industrial Biotech has often struggled with using low-impact biomass. For example, Global Bioenergies has gone back to first-generation biofuels.
The new plant is the result of over €100M in investment, and it will employ around 70 people. These add up to Novamont’s 600 employees – not to mention Industrial Biotech’s reputation as a major employer in Europe. In keeping with the theme of bioeconomy as the new industrial revolution, the plant was built on the site of a previously abandoned factory.