Had this article been published three to five years ago, the target audience would likely have been medical, bioprocess, or pharmaceutical biotechnologists focused on applying systems biology to areas such as regulatory responses in cell signaling pathways, protein expression, or the rational design of novel therapeutic agents. Today, however, the target audience for systems biology has expanded to include biotech and bioprocess development groups. The tools of this field now impact the design of cell factories used by major bulk, intermediate, and specialty chemical manufacturing companies, often including petroleum manufacturers and refiners.
What is the motivation behind industrial biotechnology’s recent penetration into the chemical manufacturing world? The cost of petroleum increased nearly 150% between January 2001 and 2006 from $22/bbl to $55/bbl. Global energy consumption is projected to increase by 57% to 681 trillion MJ between 2002 and 2025. The rapidly emerging economies of China, India, and Russia (2005 GDP growth rates of 9.9%, 7.6%, and 6.4%, respectively, compared to the average world GDP growth rate of 4.7%) are consuming energy sources at a record pace. These trends are driving traditional chemical manufacturing companies to fight against strong competition for their primary feedstock, petroleum.
Petroleum products refined from crude oil are generally classified into three categories: transportation fuels, finished nonfuel products, and feedstock for the chemical industry. In 2005 more than 75% of all petroleum was converted and sold as fuel, while less than 5% served as feedstock.
As most process development and manufacturing groups will agree, the startup of a new process often involves significant capital and operating expenses that over time, with improvements in technology, gains in operating efficiencies, and release of second-generation processes, will decrease.
As the process matures the largest cost fraction will be the raw materials. The industry is faced with a significant challenge in identifying sustainable raw materials that can be used in cost-effective, robust, and high end-product yield, titer, productivity, and quality processes. Industrial biotechnology coupled with recent developments in the fields of systems biology and metabolic engineering is offering such processes.