Corn on the Catwalk

When France announced the first six ideas emerging from its new Agency for Industrial Innovation, media attention focused on the Quaero project. Lost in the hype over this "French Google" was something a bit more original than a clone: BioHub, a €98 million refinery that will turn starches into plastics, representing Europe's latest offensive in biotech.

Biotechnology comes in colors--red for pharmaceuticals, green for agriculture and white for the use of plants to replace petroleum in everything from fuel to textiles and plastic. White biotech spells the end of petrochemicals as we know them, and is already big business. McKinsey consulting predicts that white biotech will account for 10 percent of sales, or $125 billion, within the chemical industry by 2010, up from 7 percent, or $77 billion, in 2005. Most of that comes from biofuels like ethanol, in a market with a unique competitive balance. While Europe is crippled in green biotech by popular revolt against genetically modified food, and is way behind the United States in red biotech, it is on par with the U.S. in white technology, says Feike Sijbesma, former chair of Europa-Bio, the European association of biotech companies.

This is a big European opportunity. BioHub will be led by Roquette Frères, a family-run French company that has been making insulating foam from sugar alcohols since the 1960s. It brings together chemical companies like Cognis of Germany with makers of textiles (Tergal Fibres), plastic packaging (Sidel) and even road surfacing (Eurovia), which hints at the scope of products it has in mind. Publicly, it will say only that it will make biopolymers, solvents and lubricants that can be profitable when oil prices are above $50 a barrel, and aims to have a biorefinery online in 2010. Christophe Rupp-Dahlem, the French head of BioHub, says one of its key aims is to make bioplastic more heat-resistant. Right now bio-bottles can hold only liquids that are bottled cold, ruling out teas and pasteurized fruit juices.

The current leader in commercial applications of white biotech is probably the NatureWorks subsidiary of Cargill, the American agribusiness giant. NatureWorks makes a corn-based resin that goes into packaging for Wal-Mart and Del Monte, and a textile called Ingeo that has been featured in designs by Armani, Versace Sport and Oscar de la Renta. (De la Renta designs starred on a catwalk at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in July.) The downside of the NatureWorks resin is a certain brittleness, and BASF of Germany has addressed that issue by combining it with a petrochemical resin that is entirely biodegradable.

Not far behind Cargill is a U.S.-European joint venture between DuPont and Tate & Lyle of Britain (maker of Splenda), which recently opened a biorefinery in Tennessee that makes a corn-based polymer called Bio-PDO. Boet Brinkgreve, bio-based-materials business manager at DuPont in Geneva, says Bio-PDO is replacing oil-based polymers in a fabric called Sorona, making it softer, lighter, stretchier and more colorfast than petroleum-based materials. Sorona has intriguing potential for lingerie and fade-free swimwear, says Brinkgreve, adding that Bio-PDO can also be used as a thickener in everything from hand cream to deodorant. "The biggest companies in the world are interested," he says. Like who? He says he can't say.

This is a new industry of many trade secrets, with new players getting in the game every day. DuPont also partnered with Genencor, a California subsidiary of a Danish chemical company, on genetic research to improve Sorona. Novamont of Italy makes a bioplastic called Mater-Bi from corn, wheat and potato starch that went into cups at the Turin Olympics and replaces lampblack and silica in Goodyear's BioTred tires, giving them (Novamont claims) better grip and fuel efficiency with less noise. In October, Novamont announced plans to build a new refinery that will raise output of Mater-Bi to 60,000 tons a year.

One of the big challenges facing white biotech in Europe, says Sijbesma, is to avoid the fate of green biotech. Europe's attitude toward genetically modified grains is summed up in the term "Frankenfood," and that fear could extend to textiles and plastics as producers begin to modify plants for use in these goods. "At the end of the day, white and green biotech might come together," says Sijbesma. "I'm talking about many years down the road." By then, Europe's streets may already be paved with cornstarch.