Evonik’s new step forward in the production of bioplastics

Robert Lewandowski, striker of Borussia Dortmund sponsored by Evonik
Robert Lewandowski, striker of Borussia Dortmund sponsored by Evonik

Another step in the bioeconomy for Evonik, the German company based in Essen, which is one of the world’s leading specialty chemicals companies, with sales of 13.6 billion euros and an operating result (adjusted EBITDA) of 2.6 billion in 2012. In early 2013, Evonik Industries began operating a pilot plant for ω-amino lauric acid (ALS) in Slovenska Lupca, Slovakia. The effort represents Evonik’s next step forward in the production of sustainable high-performance plastics.

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Evonik: the future of Chemical industry is eco-sustainable

“The chemical industry has the potential to play a key role in a sustainable economy. Already in this particular economic phase, the use of alternative feedstock in the chemical industry is gaining importance in light of increasing oil prices and finite fossil resources”. To say it, in this interview with Il Bioeconomista is Achim Marx, top manager of Evonik with the responsibility to follow the business of the Bioeconomy, together with his collegue Henrike Gebhardt, Senior Project manager for bioeconomy. To many people the name Evonik will bring to mind the main sponsor of Borussia Dortmund, the German football team that in its qualifying round of the Champions League has left behind great teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. The company based in Essen is one of the world’s largest industrial chemical groups: 33 thousand employees around the world with a turnover of about 15 billion euro. His business is in specialty chemicals, real estate and energy.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Evonik is one of the major chemical group in Europe that invests strongly in bioeconomy. What’s the role of biological resources for the sustainability of the chemical industry?

AM: In my opinion the chemical industry will remain primarily petrochemical-based until roughly 2030 to 2050, due primarily to the cost and limited availability of biomass. Nevertheless, using renewable raw materials such as sugar or plant waste reduces producers’ dependence on petrochemical feedstocks, thereby ensuring access to raw materials. Critical here is that biotech and chemical processes both be economical. Sustainability of a given biological process has to be verified as well. Evonik delivers high-performance products to its customers. An important performance attribute is sustainability, and the life cycle assessment characteristics for Evonik’s amino acids and bio-based polyamides are outstanding. Another important benefit to the customer is global supply security. Our customers highly value Evonik’s global amino acid supply network and long tradition of using industrial biotechnology for large-scale production of feed amino acids. The use of alternative feedstock in the chemical industry is gaining importance in light of increasing oil prices and finite fossil resources. Although our industry will remain predominantly petrochemical-based in the coming decades, there is enormous potential for increasing the use of bio-based feedstock—not only for producing specialty chemicals but also as the key building blocks of high-volume chemicals. The ability of all the actors to go the full innovation cycle – from research to market deployment – will be a key factor in determining success.

And for the future of a reality such as Evonik?

AM: Biotechnology is a future-oriented technology and, therefore, an integral part of Evonik’s growth strategy. Evonik has been active in the bioeconomy for decades. Our company’s portfolio comprises amino acids and derivatives, active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), (bio)catalysts/products for the production of biofuels and platform chemicals, bio-based polyamides, bio-based polyester polyols for coatings/adhesives, active cosmetic agents, emollients, etc.

How much does Evonik invest in biotech R&D as percentage of the total turnover? What’s your plan on bioeconomy for the next years?

HG: With biotechnology, Evonik continuously improves the Group’s existing products, develops new products, and designs more efficient and sustainable manufacturing processes. Last year Evonik spent €365 million on research and development therefore more than €30 million in biotech R&D. In our Science-to-Business Center Biotechnology at the Marl site, Germany, research in “white biotechnology” focuses on two aspects: developing sustainable production processes such as fermentation and biocatalysis, and synthesizing bio-based materials that possess superior properties or present a significant cost advantage. The Science-to-Business Center Biotechnology is divided into four competence areas: Synthetic Pathways, Bio-Product & Process Development, Portfolio Development, and Networks Industrial Biotechnology. Currently, the Center devotes its research to the development of high-performance plastics, as well as to the manufacture of ingredients for cosmetics, such as anti-aging products. Projects of the Science-to-Business Center Biotechnology have been financially supported by the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen and co-financed by the European Union.

Meanwhile, you have also presented a development plan in the field of Health and Nutrition, right?

AM: Yes, Evonik’s Health & Nutrition business unit is active in biotechnological research and development. The business unit’s strengths are in metabolic engineering and in developing fermentative and enzymatic production processes. The Process Technology & Engineering service unit provides Health & Nutrition with support for designing processes and building facilities and facility components. In addition, Health & Nutrition operates a global network of production facilities of varying size, scope and specialization. They allow us to make specialty products for the pharmaceutical industry as well as high-volume products for nutrition applications. In the Health & Nutrition Business Unit alone Evonik is hoping for sales of €1 billion over the medium term for products made using biotechnology.

Give us some examples…

HG: Evonik will be investing some €350 million by 2014 to expand its Biolys® business. An amino acid used in animal feeds, Biolys® is a source of L-lysine produced via fermentation. Investments include construction of new L-lysine plants in Brazil and Russia capable of producing nearly 200,000 metric tons each year as well as a recently finished production expansion to 280,000 metric tons per year at its Blair site in North America. The new facilities are in line with the health and nutrition megatrends. As the world’s population grows, so does the demand for meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. As a consequence, feed production is increasingly relying on amino acids to supplement feed. Biolys®,a biotechnology product made from renewable resources, is globally known as a highly effective source of L-lysine for animal feed, which helps sustainably reduce costs in feed production and animal breeding. It also benefits the environment: in a life-cycle analysis certified by TÜV Rhineland, Evonik documented that supplementing the protein supply in animal feed with Biolys® is a particularly environmentally sound concept for adequate, healthy animal nutrition.

As far as Evonik’s concerned, is the Bioeconomy, together with Green Economy, the right answer to the challenges of the third Millennium?

AM: Developing a “green economy” was one of the key topics at the Rio+20 Conference, and with good reason. I feel that both issues – sustainability and efficiency – are important concerns for bio-based chemicals and are in no way contradictory. A sustainable economy does indeed need to look at the possibility of increasing bio-based elements. The chemical industry has the potential to play a key role in a sustainable economy. Evonik specialty chemicals activities focus on high-growth megatrends. The megatrends resource efficiency, health and nutrition, and globalization are the translation of the future needs of a growing, ageing, and global population. The Bioeconomy will have a key role in supporting the development of innovative products and technical solutions to answer these challenges.

(the Italian version of this interview is published on affaritaliani.libero.it/green)