Korean refiners and chemical companies hooked on microorganisms

Korean oil refining and chemical companies are turning their eyes to microorganisms as a rich source of new business opportunities. Increasing interest in ways to produce materials not harmful to humans and the environment is driving more and more companies to discover business opportunities that use microorganisms.

GS Caltex has applied for a trademark on “GreenDiol,” a cosmetic ingredient brand using microbial technology, industry sources said on March 8. The company explained that 2,3-butanediol (BDO), a natural substance produced by GS Caltex through an eco-friendly process using microorganisms, is suitable for cosmetics because it is a non-irritating and non-toxic material with excellent moisturising and antibacterial effects. The substance is widely present in nature, but its unusual structure makes its mass-production in a general petrochemical process difficult. GS Caltex, however, has found, after more than 10,000 rounds of experiment over the years, optimal conditions where microorganisms naturally produce this material through fermentation.

SK Incheon Petrochemical has been using eco-friendly wastewater and waste treatment solutions utilising microorganisms since 2019. It extracts and analyses DNAs of microorganisms in sewage and wastewater to quickly identify changes in water quality and treats sewage and wastewater with microorganisms that are specialised for removing specific pollutants.

This is related to the growth of the white bio sector in the biotech industry. The white bio industry manufactures eco-friendly chemicals from plant resources or utilises microorganisms for water treatment. It is considered an area with high growth potential compared to the red bio area which manufactures medicines and vaccines, which is a red ocean. The government announced earlier this year that it would increase its support for the white bio industry. At present, the government’s R&D investment is concentrated on the red bio (39.7 percent) sector rather than the white bio (4.2 percent) sector.

Other Korean chemical companies are also strengthening their white bio businesses. SKC is expanding the scope of application after commercialising the world’s first polylactic acid (PLA) film extracted from corn starch. When the film is buried in the ground, it is biodegraded in 14 weeks and is used for various food packaging materials because it does not leave harmful substances. Samyang Innochem, a chemical affiliate of Samyang Group, is also building a corn starch-based bioplastic isosorbide production plant by investing 71 billion won (S$82 billion).