Careers in Biotech-based Chemical Products

One growing field of chemistry is developing, manufacturing and formulating biotechnology-based chemical products. This area is the most active one in chemistry in terms of the formation of start-up companies and in terms of taking companies public to raise money for business growth. The two best known areas are using biotechnology to develop new drugs and biofuels. However, there are also other types of chemical products that can be based on biotechnology. The job market is better in biotechnology than in most fields of traditional chemistry. So it makes sense to develop expertise or relate the expertise you already have to biotechnology and emphasize this expertise as one of your job-hunting strategies.  How might you do this?

Green chemistry

Today most chemicals are being produced from limited resources such as crude oil or natural gas. However, one could use renewable resources instead. For example, until now, most surfactants have been derived from these limited resources. These biosurfactants can be formulated with other materials to produce green laundry detergents and a wide variety of other cleaning products for household and workplace use. When these formulations work well in customer trials, large-scale production methods need to be developed to produce them commercially. Then if the biosurfactants perform well enough they could replace petroleum-based cleaning products in homes and businesses.

Of course, this type of biotechnology isn’t limited to surfactants. It can be used to develop renewable biofuels, drugs, personal care products, lubricants and polymers – all based on green chemistry.  A key part of green chemistry is using environmentally friendly catalysts such as fungi or bacteria instead of conventional catalysts, which often contain toxic metals. One possible use of these fungi and bacteria is to manufacture the biosurfactants discussed above.

We like to think of biotechnology as new. However, examples of fermentation chemistry abound in the food and beverage industries where fermentation has been used for 6,000 years. Examples include making bread, cheese, beer and wine.

Energy from food processing plant wastes

There is increased interest in producing useful energy from the waste of food processing factories. Consider an agribusiness such as Gills Onions, the largest U.S. fresh-cut onion processor.  Gills produces a growing volume of food waste: onion tops, tails and skins, which account for about 40% of the original onion weight, about 1.5 million pounds weekly. The amount had become too costly and environmentally unsustainable to plow into soil as compost.

University of California Davis researchers demonstrated that one could squeeze the onion wastes and use certain microbes to convert the juice produced into methane, which could be used to generate electricity. Today this electricity powers Gill Onions’ power plant saving $700,000 on power costs and $400,000 on trucking costs annually. The onion pulp remaining after squeezing out the juice is sold as cattle feed as is or mixed with other feed ingredients.

Food waste produced from other types of crop processing facilities can be converted to methane for use in power generation.  For instance, large citrus fruit processing factories produce a mixture of peel, seeds, and segment membranes that could be converted on-site to methane and used to generate electricity. Alternatively these food wastes could be converted to bioethanol or biodiesel. By building the plant waste conversion facility on-site, transportation costs would be near zero.

These are no longer just tomorrow’s jobs. They are today’s jobs and there are a growing number of jobs for chemists in these fields now.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1400 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

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