23 Mai 2006

Drug plant could make biofuels

Bio-based fuels and chemicals could help take up the slack in the wake of a pharmaceuticals plant's pending closing

Investors representing a Midwest consortium toured the 512,000-square-foot Pfizer Inc. plant to determine if it can be reconfigured as a biorefinery, a factory converting crops and plant wastes into industrial chemicals and fuels.

With declining demand for products made at Pfizer’s facility at 188 Howard Ave., the pharmaceuticals firm announced last year plans to close the facility by the end of this year if it could not find a buyer.

The plant currently employs about 200 people, said Rick Chambers, a spokesman for Pfizer’s Midwest operations. About 100 people were laid off to date due to manufacturing overcapacity and slackened demand for the active ingredient in the anti-seizure medicine Neurontin, for which Pfizer’s patent expired in 2005, Chambers said.

The factory is outfitted with reactors for fermentation and specialized purification processing, equipment that can be retrofitted to produce the bio-based chemicals ethanol and succinic acid.

Ethanol is blended in more than 40 percent of the nation’s fuel, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Succinic acid, also known as spirit of amber, is made from natural sugars in corn and wheat and can be used in applications as wide ranging as de-icing windshields of airplanes and airport runways, to cosmetics, food additives and diesel fuel.

What the unidentified consortium wants to assess is whether the Pfizer plant can manufacture those with its sophisticated equipment, said Rob Gemerchak, a Southfield-based senior vice president for Binswanger Co., which is marketing the 46-acre site. An additional draw is the plant’s location near Int. 196 and U.S. 131, Tulip City Airport and a Lake Michigan harbor.

“We are told the deep-water access is a big plus,” he said. “It allows for freighter transportation of heavy bulk goods to and from the plant.”

In addition to producing ethanol and bulk fuel, the Pfizer plant has the capability to produce industrial chemicals and research and development work, said Bruce Dale, director of the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University.

That’s exactly the type of business being done by a Mason County firm.

Diversified Natural Products Inc. of Scottville uses a strain of bacteria licensed from the U.S. Department of Energy to ferment sugars found in corn and sugar beets into succinic acid. It is producing the acid in France through a joint venture with Agro-Industry Research &Developments., and is looking for a U.S. site to produce the acid. But it is not considering Pfizer’s Holland Township plant for the site, said Kris Berglund, DNP’s chief science officer.

Gemerchak’s primary focus to find a buyer for the Holland facility as a pharmaceutical plant hasn’t changed. But he has considered other possible uses because of heightened interest in biotechnology products.

When his firm attended the BIO 2006 conference in Chicago last month, “we thought it would be more of a pharmaceutical conference,” he said. “But there was a lot of discussion on renewable energy and bioindustry.”

Source: The Grand Rapids Press May 19, 2006.

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