White Biotechnology for sustainable plastics
Green, white, red – the Italian flag probably springs to mind for many people. What might be less well known is that the three colors also play a role in a pioneering key technology: the use of microorganisms and enzymes that aim to advance different areas of modern life and drive innovation. While green biotechnology helps in agriculture, for example to make plants more resistant to climate change, red biotechnology advances medicine – for example to produce vaccines of the kind used to protect against coronavirus.
The third field is white or industrial biotechnology, which is increasingly used in the chemical and plastics industry. With microorganisms and enzymes, which are components of them, complex chemical reactions can be significantly simplified or new chemicals that were previously unavailable can be produced. In addition, the processes often take place under milder conditions than with conventional technology: temperatures and pressures are lower, fewer potentially harmful organic solvents are required, and undesirable by-products can be avoided or reduced.
Special research group established
In order to leverage the potential of white biotechnology for plastics production, Covestro founded its own competence center in 2018. It has now been expanded to include a special research unit, the junior research group Enzyme Catalysis, or NEnzy for short. It will be funded over the next five years with 2.5 million euros in total from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. From this, Covestro expects further impetus for the circular economy, on which the company will be completely organized.
"We take nature as a model, which has produced sensational processes and has been practicing recycling for millions of years," says Dr. Gernot Jäger, who heads the Biotechnology Competence Center. “With the help of enzymes and microorganisms, we can use alternative raw materials efficiently therefore replacing fossil resources. At the same time, unwanted by-products can be avoided or at least significantly reduced.”
In close cooperation with the RWTH Aachen University in Germany, researchers are working on recycling old products and plastic waste with the help of enzymes. They also want to use enzymes to treat process water in plastics production. A third focus is the targeted and complete decomposition of man-made plastic in nature.
“We take nature as a model and use its tools in plastic production”
A newly modernized laboratory is now available to the biotech experts at Covestro's headquarters in Leverkusen. Here, biotechnological processes can be represented particularly realistically in a wide range of sizes - volumes from one milliliter to 100 liters will soon be possible.
Microorganisms for chemicals from plants
In addition, Covestro is pushing ahead with a special research project: the production of the important basic chemical aniline from plant biomass instead of petroleum; also a contribution to the circular economy. To this end, the company, together with partners, has developed a process in which a tailor-made microorganism is used. With its help, an industrial sugar obtained from plants is converted into an intermediate product. This is then refined into aniline in a further step.
Several tons of this have now been produced for test purposes, and Covestro has succeeded in manufacturing a sample of insulating foam from plant-based aniline. The company is now working on further testing the process on a larger technical scale. The project is supported with public funds from the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
Around six million tons of aniline are currently being produced worldwide, with the volume growing by around three to five percent per year on average. With a production capacity of more than one million tons, Covestro is one of the leading manufacturers in the chemical industry. The company uses it to obtain the substance MDI, which primarily serves as a component for the production of rigid polyurethane foam. The material is in use around the world to insulate buildings and refrigerators, making a significant contribution to saving energy.
Another plastic component can already be produced on a similar scale from plants and with the help of white biotechnology: the precursor HDMA , which is used to manufacture paints and adhesives. Covestro and the US-based biotech company Genomatica have succeeded in doing this as part of a partnership.