10 December 2014

Biomass projects keep the biotechnology momentum going

By Dr Daniel Tan L.T.

In April last year I wrote about rising foreign direct investment in biotechnology in this very column. While biotechnology may be a relatively new industry in Malaysia it is good to be aware of the recent investments and government initiatives.

And, with the inroads that have been made in biotechnology in the medical and scientific spheres in recent years, it is also worth learning about some biotechnology products. In my article last year I highlighted two, namely L-methionine which can be used in animal feed, and graphene, a nanotechnology product for the industry. This shows the variety of products that could be derived from biotechnology.

At the BioMalaysia and Bioeconomy Asia Pacific 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, a key meeting point for industry professionals in the region, California-based renewable chemicals company Verdezyne Inc announced the construction of a manufacturing facility worth approximately RM250 million in Iskandar in Johor, Malaysia. The facility will produce nylon from plant-based biomass (The Malaysian Reserve, 20 Nov 2014).

Verdezyne was one of the US companies which signed commercial deals amounting to about US$2 billion (about RM6.8 billion) with Malaysian companies, witnessed by both Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and US President Barack Obama in April this year.

Verdezyne has the know-how to produce nylon from plant-based feedstock through yeast fermentation technology. The organic feedstock is easily available in Malaysia. The company will also conduct R&D on the conversion of palm oil by-products into renewable petroleum substitutes for industrial purposes. The project is generally seen as a further value-add for the palm oil sector.

Another notable investment was by Beijing Goldenway Biology Tech Co Ltd for the production of bio-humic acid from oil palm wastes using micro-organisms, at the East Coast Economic Region (ECER). The ECER is an economic development region based on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, which covers the states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Mersing district in northeast Johor.

The Chinese company is the world’s largest bio-humic acid producer and a R&D company specialising in the treatment and transformation of organic wastes.

Humic acid is a major natural organic constituent of soil humus. However, because of improper agricultural practices the soil could be depleted of this naturally occurring element. This is where biomass based humic acid or compost could be introduced to recondition the soil for sustainable agriculture. Realizing the importance of R&D in biomass, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus entered into a MoU with Daitoku Sdn Bhd to research and develop sustainable management of palm oil waste, in April this year.

The importance of biomass R&D was amplified by the announcement of the five-year Sarawak Biomass Hub project by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Mah Siew Keong, at a ceremony at the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly. The Hub will be the first commercial facility in Southeast Asia to produce second-generation biofuel made from inedible crops. The project, if executed as planned, is expected to contribute a revenue of RM20 billion in additional gross national income for the state, RM21 billion in investment and more than 10,000 new green jobs created by 2023, The Washington Post reported. The high value jobs are in line with the objectives of the National Biomass Strategy 2020.

Brooke Renewables, made up of a consortium of partners, will invest US$1 billion (about RM3.4 billion) to develop the Sarawak Biomass Hub project. This will help to position the state in the regional forefront of the biomass-based industry. Organisations in the consortium include foreign parties such as Beta Renewables, owner of the world’s first commercial scale second generation bioethanol plant in Italy, and Novozymes, the largest enzyme solution provider (Borneo Post, 25 November 2014).

In conclusion, the biotechnology sector certainly looks promising for 2015 considering the scale of the investments both financially and technologically in 2013 and 2014. If we were to add the venture by Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy into the biotechnology sector via the Sarawak Biomass Hub as well as forays into the industry in other regional economic corridors across the country, we will begin to see the biotechnology landscape finally emerging in Malaysia.

Dr Daniel Tan L.T. is a lecturer with the Faculty of Engineering, Science and Computing at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at ltdtan@swinburne.edu.my