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The Future of “White Biotechnology”

Lu Weichuan and Tianjin GreenBio are now trying to create a new situation of the biodegradable material industry. The farewell to the white pollution may be coming soon.
March 27th last year, there were not many people celebrating the 75th anniversary of the discovery of polyethylene (PE) at that moment. On the contrary, the rising oil price and the ugly white pollution are still large issues for us. “The world’s annual output of plastic products has achieved 100 million tons, while there are 60-70 million tons plastics discarded which are non-degradable and the raw materials of which are from the non-renewable oil resources”, said Lu Weichuan, the board chairman of Tianjin Green Bioscience Co.,Ltd. Along with the anxiety, he is also full with ambitions. He said “Our 10,000 tons PHA production base will be put into operation at the end of this year. We are trying to achieve the production capacity of 100,000 tons after another three years.”
PHA has excellent nonlinear optical effect, piezoelectricity, gas separation property, hydrolytic stability and many other characteristics, all of which make PHA similar to conventional oil-based plastics in material properties. The difference from other materials is that PHA also has good biodegradability. Therefore, PHA has been recognized as the “green plastic”, a substitute for the oil-based plastic product. PHA is a kind of natural biological polymers made from starch or glucose. It can be completely degraded into carbon dioxide and water in the environment of soil, rivers, sewage and marine water in 3 to 6 months. The carbon dioxide and water will return to the earth and become the necessary compositions of crop growth. Then after half a year’s growing, there will be productive farming lands, once again becoming the raw material providers for PHA production.
As biodegradable material, PHA has been discovered as early as 1926. However, it is still unknown to the common people. This is mainly because the oil-based plastic has lower price—less than10, 000 yuan/ton, while PHA is 30,000 yuan/ton at least. Additionally, the technical maturity in plastic industry is that the biodegradable material doesn’t have. Lu Weichuan decided to realize the industrialization of PHA depending on GreenBio’s own genetically engineered microorganisms (GEMs), advanced production technology and application development.
Lu Weichuan has a straightforward life experience. He was assigned to North China Pharmaceutical Factory (the predecessor of North China Pharmaceutical Corperation) after his graduation from Jiangxi Institute of Light Industry in 1964, and there he spent his 20th birthday. From the most base-level technician to the chairman of the board, the secretary of the Party committee, Lu Weichuan has never left this company. After his retirement, he felt himself “still young” and decided to start his own business.
Lu Weichuan chose biodegradable material as the direction of his enterprise. He divided biotechnology into three stages: the first is bio-medical age which is called “red biotechnology” age marked with the marketing of recombulin in 1982; the second is “green biotechnology” age focusing on the popularization of transgenic plant in 1990s; while the 21st century is the age of “white biotechnology” based on the development of bio-energy and bio-materials. Lu Weichuan, contributed half of his lifetime to biopharmaceutics, decided to go in for the “white biotechnology” era.
“To develop biodegradable materials is closely linked with pharmaceutics. They all include such processes as microbial fermentation, extraction and purification. The extraction of biodegradable material is easier in a certain extent, for it doesn’t require the purity as high as drugs. ”, said Chen Guoqiang, processor from the Department of Biological Science and Technology, Tsinghua University.
Finding the suitable starting material is the first problem for Lu Weichuan. In the field of biodegradable material, there are modified starch, PLA and PHA etc. having the application prospects. But it is difficult to solve the brittleness problem of the former two. In addition, dealing with PLA seems more troublesome, because its degradation needs composing with the temperature reaching 60 degrees centigrade. While due to the good performance and large adjustable range, PHA is considered the most potential material. Lu Weichuan has chosen P34HB from the PHA family for the industrialization attempts.
Strains culture is the first step. Culturing P34HB usually uses natural bacterial fermentation. “The output of natural bacteria is not high enough. It can be just used for lab experiment but not for industrialization.”, said Lu Weichuan. He invented his own recombinant technology and applied for the patent.
GreenBio has been in the “money-burning” stage since it was incorporated in 2003. Lu Weichuan said “What we have done is magnifying the strains culture, from the lab flasks to 30 liters, 100 liters and the current 1,000 liters step by step. To reach the future PHA annual production capacity OF 10,000 tons, eight large pots of 150 m3for cultivating strains are needed.”
“The main difficulty is oxygen transfer. If the cans get greater, the ratio of surface area to volume will get smaller; the limited motor power will slow down the mixing speed while the dissolved oxygen will be a big problem. Meanwhile, the electric charge will be a large amount.”, said Chen Guoqiang. But GreenBio solved this problem with the equipment designed by themselves. “The fermenters reconstructed ourselves can save more than 30% energy. We used electric motor of 300 kw previously while 200 kw is enough at present. ” Lv Weichuan is so satisfied about that.
Besides constructing the industrialization platform, GreenBio should also centre on the application development. “We must allow the downstream manufacturers to know how to do with our products.” PHA material is like powder, the same as other raw material of plastics. Then through adding additives it will become pellets of different uses. Finally through a certain process, lunch boxes, plastic bags and many other products will be produced.
“GreenBio is not only the producer of PHA raw material, but also a provider of PHA application technology who can master the upstream and downstream of the entire industry. While other manufacturers involved in PHA have nothing to do with PHA applications. ”,said Chen Guoqiang. The lag of PHA application technology is the main shackles of its industrialization for the conventional manufacturers are not willing to emphasize on researches, but rather to wait for the downstream factories. Because the melting point, vitrification point, flexibility is different from the common plastics, PHA can’t be processed on the conventional production lines.
GreenBio has developed its own application technology in accordance with the application of traditional injection molding, fibers, film and bottles. However, Lu Weichuan didn’t want to research entirely by GreenBio itself for there are so many kinds of plastic products. He assigned all the research and development of technologies to Shantou University and other research institutes while GreenBio held the final patent rights. For example, the issues of processing conditions are solved by Beijing University of Chemical Technology and the development of blowing film is allocated to Chang Chun Institute of Applied Chemistry.
Since June1, 2008, shops and supermarkets have been forbidden from offering free plastic bags to customers, according to a new law. A nation-wide campaign against plastic bags has been launched. That has brought GreenBio with a larger market prospect. According to the conservative estimate of Professor Chen Guoqiang, there are at least 2 million tons of ultra-thin plastic alternatives every year in China. The future strategy for Lu Weichuan is very clear. His short-term goal is to make a breakthrough in replacing the oil-based plastic products and expand market access of annual 10,000 tons of PHA products.


Source from : http://www.globrand.com/2009/127047.shtml

release date:2010-1-6 16:39:28 back >>
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