BioHub™: An Open Innovation Program at Roquette (France) to Develop Biobased Products and Processes
The food ingredients industry and the chemicals industry are actively working on developing plant-based products, bringing sustainable bio-sourced chemicals and polymers to the market.
Roquette is at the crossroad of those two industries , similarly to the new combination of expertise resulting from mergers of Dupont (USA) with Danisco Ingredients (DK) and DSM (Holland) with Martek Biosciences (USA) Fortitech (USA) and Cargill( USA)’s cultures and enzymes division.
Roquette is a global leader in plant-based raw materials processing, which recorded R&D and commercial successes in applying the starch chemistry to the synthesis and formulation of polymers. Following a French Government aid of up to €42 million approved by the European Commission in December 2006, Roquette coordinated a collaborative R&D program of 5 years named BIOHUB™.
The BIOHUB™ R&D program involves multiple private and public partners and was created to develop new plant-based chemical products and new biotech processes for the synthesis of substitutes to existing petrochemical products. The main goal was to strengthen the plant-based chemistry and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. One of the latest successes of this program is the development of a high purity isosorbide, which is used as a monomer for the synthesis of polymers or as a polymer plasticizer to replace e.g. phthalates in PVC.
Historically, Roquette had started to work on sorbitol and to produce it in small quantities in the early fifties. Sorbitol is a precursor of isosorbide. Down the road, Roquette developed numerous grades of sorbitol and derived polyols, with a wide range of purity and final properties. Roquette pioneered the development and the production of sorbitol and its derivatives is now a leading producer of other polyols (maltitol, xylitol, etc). Roquette has sorbitol and polyols manufacturing plants in the three key regions of the world: Europe, Americas and China.
Sorbitol is also used by the chemicals industry as an initiator to make polyether polyols, a pre-polymer of rigid polyurethane foams obtained by reaction with its second component: isocyanates.
Very early on, Roquette started to work on isosorbide, obtained by dehydration of sorbitol, but did not find relevant applications, except niche applications for pharmaceuticals, until the BioHub™ program was put together.
The BIOHUB™ program was an answer to the French Government 2005 Call for Innovative Industrial Projects applied to the plant-based chemistry. The proposed projects were eligible to state funds provided they fulfilled several conditions. One of them was the need to propose collaborative projects involving a private company as the project leader and combining private and public research labs. Roquette defined and built the BIOHUB™ program which included new product development, specifically chemicals intermediates and monomer and new technologies to produce them (e.g.: fermentation processes applied to glucose to produce derivates like succinic acid, glycolic acid and methionine).
With regards to monomers, BioHub™ focused on isosorbide, glycolic acid and succinic acid. With regards to additives, it focused on isosorbide diesters as plasticizers.
The BIOHUB™ program was also a deep change in the way Roquette runs its R&D efforts. The BIOHUB™ program was the first of its kind at Roquette and has now proven to be a real success. One of it outcomes is Roquette’s partnership with DSM on biosuccinic acid for the development of an efficient industrial process, leading to the commissioning of a commercial size plant in Cassano Spinola (Italy) under the banner of their dedicated JV Reverdia.
Another strategic objective of the BIOHUB™ program was to prepare the future of Roquette. Not only to change dramatically the way to run innovation programs in collaborative as opposed to secretive mode, but also to extend its reach and product offer to unchartered waters like polymer chemistry.
BioHub™ has led Roquette to the commercialization phase of different products derived from e.g. isosorbide, growing their production capacity step by step from lab scale and pilot plant scale to full industrial size plants. As far as high purity isosorbide is concerned, Roquette has now a 5000 tons/ year capacity available and an open field of new possibilities thanks to the diversity of use of the high purity isosorbide they have developed and applications they have found with their BioHub™partners. Isosorbide is one of the rare renewably sourced chemicals that can bring exciting new performances to the final product, which the petroleum-based chemicals could not bring.
*POLYSORB® P is a Highly Pure Isosorbide
Isosorbide is a diol, therefore has a good potential as a raw material for polyester or polyurethane synthesis. The hurdle to overcome was that isosorbide is very difficult to purify whilst very high purity is paramount for its use as a monomer. Thanks to the technology developed by Roquette during the BIOHUB™ program isosorbide can now be used in two different ways in the polymer industry: as a monomer to produce polymers (named POLYSORB® P) or as an additive (named POLYSORB® ID37, which is an isosorbide diester).
Isosorbide as a monomer delivers excellent optical properties to the end polymer. In addition thanks to the rigidity of the isosorbide molecular structure, an interesting balance of mechanical and thermal performances of the end polymer is achieved. The chemical resistance and the scratch resistance of isosorbide-based polymers were found to be better than the reference petroleum-based polymers of the market. Roquette has worked with several partners on its POLYSORB® P to create direct replacement of petroleum-based polymers offering enhanced performances and lower CO2 emission balance. Roquette has partnered with Mitsubishi Chemical (Japan) to develop an isosorbide-based polycarbonate.
The results were improved optical properties, a better UV resistance and surface hardness than petroleum-based polycarbonate, while keeping mechanical properties at reference levels. Mitsubishi Chemical is commissioning a new manufacturing unit dedicated to this new polymer, named DURABIO™.
The partnership also encompassed PEIT (polyethyleneisosorbide terephthalate) a heat resistant isosorbide-based PET competing with PET-G for glass replacement in food dishes and bottles. PEIT was proven to withstand dishwashing machine cycles and cope with extremely demanding hot-fill packaging applications.
Isosorbide diester as a replacement to phthalate plasticizers.
Roquette went further into the value integration of isosorbide by developing marketable chemicals derived from isosorbide. One of the outcomes is POLYSORB® ID37, an isosorbide diester. POLYSORB® ID37 was also developed under the BIOHUB™ program umbrella with the original objective of replacing phthalate plasticizers in PVC formulations. POLYSORB® ID37 was then proven also efficient in plasticizing non-PVC formulations. The isosorbide is fully approved under the REACH European legislation with excellent toxicological records. There is not a single remark on any possible toxicity of isosorbide. This has strengthened the position of POLYSORB® ID37 as phthalate replacement and competitive phthalate alternatives plasticizers.
One of the most recent and significant commercial application and technical successes of POLYSORB® ID37 is its integration to the formulation of a new range of floor tiles developed by Gerflor and successfully positioned as an environmentally friendly product.
POLYSORB® ID37 has also been used to add value in other formulations than PVC such as adhesive, paint and coating formulations.
Roquette’s BioHub program is again an illustration of how multiple collaborative R&D and commercialization partnerships of global reach can push the walls of the application area of new molecules and accelerate time to market of sustainable bio-sourced substitutes to petrochemical molecules, some of which don’t pass new more stringent legislations being adopted by developed and emerging countries . It also illustrates how public funds can kick start those collaborative programs and change the name of the game incorporating simple but strict rules to encourage public and private research to teal-up and deliver valuable products and processes. Even in time of budget constraints, this is worth highlighting for governments wishing to bring new dynamics to their chemicals and agro ressources industries.