Job Growth, Environmental Well-Being Tied to Biotechnology Advancement

by | Jan 5, 2011

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Prospects for adoption of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard appear to have dimmed for the foreseeable future. That is at least the prevailing opinion among respondents to the recent BIO/Biofuels Digest “11 Hot Trends for 2011” survey. Fully 41 percent of respondents predicted that Congress would not bring up a new energy bill in 2011.

Without a price premium for low-carbon energy, biofuels and raw materials that national energy policy could provide, some policy makers may want to believe that continued reliance on petroleum for fuels and consumer goods is acceptable. But everyone in the renewables industry should work to remind them that sustainability is about more than carbon emissions. Sustainability is a three-legged stool that requires a balance of environmental, economic and social factors. The social factors include the potential to create new jobs, and the economic aspects include economic growth and competitiveness. Developing new energy and raw material resources would help all U.S. companies address all three legs.

For individual businesses, sustainability is an imperative for economic survival. Limiting environmental impacts, reducing exposure to volatility in raw material costs, and deploying innovative technologies are the keys to ensuring future economic growth and improving the bottom line for any business – large or small. That’s why nearly half of respondents to the “11 Hot Trends for 2011” believe that in the coming year biofuel producers would begin to develop additional value streams through biobased products as a way to meet these imperatives. Biotechnology is a source of innovation that can enable industry to switch from fossil resources to renewable, building a robust, sustainable bioeconomy.

Recently, a number of U.S. companies have pioneered biotechnology applications for biobased products – primarily, chemicals and plastics from renewable resources. Some of these renewable chemicals and plastics can directly replace those made from petroleum in a range of products, such as food packaging and water bottles. These innovations could help the United States further reduce reliance on petroleum while also reducing impacts on the environment. But more importantly, these innovations can create or save jobs.

DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products is a joint venture between two leading companies. Its facility in Loudon, Tenn., converts renewable sugar into 1,3 propanediol (PDO) – an ingredient in everything from lotions to carpets. With increased demand for renewable chemicals, DuPont Tate & Lyle is expanding production capacity at this facility by 35 percent, creating 130 new jobs in construction, engineering and operations.

Elevance Renewable Sciences, a small company in Illinois, is planning construction of a demonstration biorefinery in Newton, Iowa, that will produce jet fuel, green diesel and specialty chemicals from plant oils and animal fats. The facility will provide 40 to 50 construction jobs, and seven permanent operations jobs, to a county whose unemployment rate rose from 5.2 percent in 2006 to 9.8 in January 2010.

Metabolix, a small company employing 90 people, recently opened a facility in Clinton, Iowa, to produce a plastic made from sugar that can biodegrade in a number of natural settings, including a composting facility. This plant brings 200 full-time jobs to the city, and its construction created more than 500 jobs over the past four years, during which time the annual unemployment rate averaged only 4.8 percent.

Solazyme, Inc. – a small California company – is retrofitting a mothballed pharmaceutical plant to produce algae for diesel fuel in Riverside, Penn., where the county unemployment rate approached 9 percent in September 2010. This revitalized production facility will employ 80 people and create more than 250 jobs in the community.

ZeaChem, Inc., a Colorado start-up, is building a facility in Boardman, Ore., that will transform cellulose in trees to acetic acid, an organic chemical that can be used in polyethylene bottles. In an area where the annual unemployment rate jumped from 6.2 percent in 2008 to 8.8 percent in September 2010, this new facility will create as many as 300 jobs in the local economy.

NatureWorks is a Minnetonka, Minn.-based company that currently employs about 150 people, both at its headquarters and at a Blair, Neb. biorefinery that can produce as much as 300 million pounds of biodegradable polymer from annually renewable resources. Since the biorefinery’s opening in 2002, annual unemployment for the county has averaged 3.1 percent.

Collectively, companies such as these producing renewable chemicals and biobased plastics directly employ some 5,700 Americans at more than 150 facilities around the country. Because such biorefineries can be located anywhere in the country, making use of local renewable raw materials, they can create jobs anywhere. Innovations such as these are the most promising source of jobs and economic growth for the future.

Companies working to bring new biotechnology tools to the marketplace will gather next year at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in Toronto, May 8-11.

Brent Erickson is Executive Vice President of Biotechnology Industry Organization’s Industrial & Environmental section.

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