Make Complex Molecules with Ease: Biotechnology in Chemical Engineering

August 1, 2002 - New York, NY

By Nicholas P. Chopey

Two points need making at the outset.

First, biotechnology does not have a universally accepted definition, and its scope is wide. its main relevance for the chemical engineer is the use of living organisms or other biological systems for process manufacture. But it is also, for instance, a tool for environmental protection. And, its medical applications extend beyond the obvious production of pharmaceuticals as recently described at Chemical Heritage Foundation lectures by M.I.T. chemical engineering professor Robert Langer, biotechnology plays key roles in the linking of chemistry, chemical engineering and medicine for implantable drag delivery and human-tissue engineering. implantable drag delivery systems

Second, for all the excitement it is creating nowadays, biotechnology is far from new. For instance, beer brewing and winemaking are among the very oldest of chemical-process activities.

Unique capabilities

At any rate, the current level of interest is fully justified. Through biotechnology, the metabolism of living organisms can synthesize formidably complicated molecules, under environmentally friendly conditions and at comparatively low operating costs. As Clyde Payn, president of The Catalyst Group, puts it, leading developments today are incubated on enzyme and protein manipulation technologies; these can be applied to make drugs, fine chemicals or other products or materials. For the pharmaceutical industry, new product development and quickness in commercializing them are vital. This has been triggering not only collaborative ventures between drug companies and newer biotechnology companies, but also relatively new research and screening technologies, such as combinatorial chemistry (which also has application in other chemical-process development).

New-technology cornucopia

Recent biotechnology related developments abound. A showcase example is a Cargill Dew LLC plant in Blair, Neb., that produces polylactide polymers from corn. This is an example of how, as Payn points out, investment in biotechnology can help society complement petroleum based resources.

Elsewhere, for instance, DuPont and Diversa Corp. will seek and employ biocatalysts in connection with DuPont's microbial production of 1,3 propanediol, a precursor for apparel grade textile fibers. In this connection, DuPont reportedly also has an agreement with Genencor International...

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