As the momentum for more sustainability continues to build, major players in the industry are exploring ways to reduce their environmental impact and in many cases, looking to nature to do so. Biotechnology is increasingly seen as one of the avenues available to become more environmentally responsible. As Markus Steilemann, CEO of Covestro pointed out: “Biotechnology has enormous potential to produce plastics in a more environmentally friendly and efficient way.”
With the expansion of its biotechnology competence centre, Covestro is further broadening its capabilities in industrial biotechnology. The centre, which opened four years ago, now also boasts a publicly funded research group, with more space and sophisticated equipment in a new laboratory that Covestro has built at its headquarters in Leverkusen.
This junior research group enzyme catalysis, or NEnzy for short, will receive a total of 2.5 million Euros in funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research for five years and is cooperating closely with RWTH Aachen University in Germany. The group is exploring, among others, how to use microorganisms and enzymes to make Covestro’s products and processes even more sustainable.
The researchers are looking at how to recycle end-of-life products and plastic waste through enzymatic recycling as well as the use of enzymes to treat wastewater in plastics production. Another focus is the targeted and complete decomposition of used plastic in nature.
“We are taking nature as our model, which has created sensational processes and has practiced closed-loop recycling for millions of years,” said Dr. Gernot Jäger, who heads Covestro's Biotechnology Competence Center.
Specifically, Covestro is already using biotechnology to research and develop new ways to produce sustainable aniline. This basic chemical has, until now, been obtained almost exclusively from fossil raw materials such as petroleum, which releases CO2. Covestro needs aniline to produce a precursor (MDI) that is used to make insulating foam for buildings and refrigeration equipment.
Together with partners from industry and science, Covestro has developed a pioneering process to produce aniline from plant-based raw materials such as straw or sugar beet plants in an environmentally compatible way using microorganisms. Fully biobased aniline has already been obtained in this way and successfully processed into test products. Now the process, which has already won several awards, is to be further developed on a larger scale. The project is funded with public funds from the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.