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Green Matter: ThyssenKrupp Uhde inaugurates Europe’s first multi-purpose fermentation plant

It's a name most people probably associate with steel and elevator technology, but ThyssenKrupp is more than that. Much, much more. Among the many companies, ranging from automotive component makers to cement plant builders, that make up the ThyssenKrupp group is ThyssenKrupp Uhde, one of the world's leading engineering contractors for the engineering and construction of chemical and other industrial plants, including polymers and industrial biotechnology.

At a cost of around 20 million Euros, ThyssenKrupp Uhde has built Europe's first multi-purpose fermentation plant for the continuous production of bio-based chemicals at the Leuna industrial site in Saxony-Anhalt (Germany).

At the facility, the company will expand its research and development activities in the area of biochemicals based on renewable raw materials. Among other things, these biochemicals are used as starting materials for biodegradable plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polybutylene succinate (PBS).

Research goals
At the new facility, the research focus of the Biotechnologies Division at ThyssenKrupp Uhde, which was relocated from Leipzig to the new site at Leuna in August 2012, will be three-pronged. In the first place, efforts will be directed at the optimization of the company's existing technologies.

Much attention has already gone out to the development and testing of organic acids. Years ago, for example, subsidiary company Uhde Inventa-Fischer developed a proprietary process for the production of polylactic acid (PLA), leading ThyssenKrupp Uhde to focus attention on the investigation and production of lactic acid, the feedstock for PLA. After five years of research, a team of engineers and scientists from ThyssenKrupp Uhde's plant technology business succeeded in developing a licensable process for lactic acid production.

The company has also been working extensively on the production of bio-succinic acid. It signed an exclusive alliance with the US-based renewable chemicals company Myriant in 2009 to commercialize bio-succinic acid. Succinic acid, which is traditionally produced from petroleum, can be used in a wide variety of applications including polymers, urethanes, plasticizers and coatings. Made from renewable feedstocks, Myriant's bio-succinic acid is chemically equivalent to petroleum-based succinic acid while providing a lower environmental footprint.

In a recent announcement, Myriant noted that it had successfully scaled up production of bio-succinic acid at the facility in Leuna, adding that the production process met its targets for commercial yield and product quality.

Other organic acids are still at the testing stage.

Researchers at the ThyssenKrupp Uhde will also be examining the possibilities for expanding the feedstock base for conventional fermentation technologies through the use of second-generation carbon sources and will be seeking to develop new and more effective fermentation and downstream technologies.

Significant market potential
ThyssenKrupp CEO Heinrich Hiesinger sees modern biotechnology as one of the key technologies of the 21st century. "Biotechnological processes, products and services play a role in almost all areas of our daily lives - for example in the development of new medicines, plant varieties, detergents and cosmetics. Industrial biotechnology is part of our growth strategy. ThyssenKrupp has extensive expertise in this area - from basic research to the operation of industrial-scale pilot plants," he said.

The newly inaugurated multi-purpose pilot plant will demonstrate ThyssenKrupp Uhde's fermentation and processing technologies for the production of a variety of biochemicals. In addition, bringing this facility on stream will enable both lactic acid and biosuccinic acid to be produced on an industrial scale, i.e. annually more than 1000 metric tons.

According to the ThyssenKrupp Uhde 2012 company profile published earlier this year, the lactic acid is to be converted into PLA at Uhde Inventa-Fischer's pilot plant in Guben (Germany), while in collaboration with the company's partner Myriant, part of the succinic acid will be made available to prospective major customers for testing. The rest will be converted into PBS at Uhde Inventa-Fischer's pilot plant in Berlin. PBS, like PLA, is a biodegradable plastic, and it can be used as an alternative to, or in combination with, PLA.

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