June 2008



In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, it may not be easy being green but it can land you an award, plus we cover superconducting cables and a big fine for Pfizer.

Chemical Industry

Huntsman countersues:
Following last week’s legal action by Apollo as it seeks to exit its deal to buy Huntsman, the Texas-based chemicals firm has responded by filing suit against Apollo. The suit accuses Apollo of ‘fraud and tortious interference’ in inducing Huntsman to break a prior merger agreement with Basell – and seeks over $3 billion (£1.5 billion) in actual damages. In response to the suit, Apollo affiliate Hexion notes that Huntsman does not dispute Apollo’s claim that Huntsman’s recent poor performance would render the combined company insolvent.

Rohm and Haas cuts jobs:
US chemicals maker Rohm and Haas is axing 925 jobs – 20 per cent of those in electronic materials, 70 per cent in chemicals and about 10 per cent in support services – as part of a bid to streamline its activities to restore profitability. The company will also cut back capacity at various North American facilities. Company chairman and CEO Raj Gupta says the moves are part of a planned restructure, brought forward due to ‘rapid erosion of business conditions in the US’.

Sabic-Sinopec deal expanded:
Saudi petrochemicals firm Sabic and China’s Sinopec have announced they are to expand the scope of their joint petrochemicals plant in Tianjin, northern China. The project, currently under construction, was initially announced in January with a $1.7 billion budget, but that has now been increased to $2.5 billion, to increase capacity and expand the range of products produced.

Switched on superconductivity:
French industrial gas company Air Liquide say the world’s first high voltage superconductor cable to be used in a real power grid has been connected up by the Long Island Power Authority in New York. The 600m long cable carries enough power for 300,000 homes, and is intended to demonstrate superconducting cables can be used in a commercial power grid. Air Liquide have developed the liquid nitrogen cooling and distribution system, which keeps the cable at -200°C, low enough for it to superconduct.

Superconducting Cable

Dow boosts prices, cuts capacity:
Following US chemicals giant Dow’s 28 May announcement to increase prices across its entire product portfolio by up to 20 per cent, the company has now announced further price rises of up to a further 25 per cent, and a freight surcharge, in a bid to tackle rising feedstock, energy and transport costs. Dow is also cutting production or idling plants across North America and Europe as demand slows in these economies.

Bayer receives green award:
Germany’s Bayer has won the 2008 Environmentally Friendly Technology award from the Federation of German Industries for its new chlorine production process, which cuts energy use and carbon dioxide emissions by 30 per cent. Bayer developed an oxygen depolarised cathode to make chlorine from hydrochloric acid – a by-product formed during polyurethane production – via an electrolysis process.

Plant growth:
Sabic says it will build a new polypropylene compounding plant in Genk, Belgium, to come on-stream in early 2010. Initial capacity at the facility will be 140,000 tonnes – but could be expanded to 170,000 tonnes.

Bayer in Brazil:
Bayer is to invest around €100 million (£79 million) upgrading its facilities at various of its sites in Brazil – including plants for the production of plastics precursors and crop protection products. The company says it plans to expand it position in the region – and that sales in Brazil reached €1.2 billion in 2007, making it one of Bayer’s top 10 markets.

Saudi refinery deal signed:
Saudi Aramco and French petrochemicals firm Total have signed an agreement to form a joint venture – the Jubail Refining and Petrochemical Company – to build a refinery in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. As well as fuels, the facility will produce 700,000 tonnes per year of paraxylene, 140,000 tonnes of benzene and 200,000 tonnes of propylene. The project is due to be completed in 2012.

Aluminum fluoride price fixers fined:
The European Commission has announced the latest fine for a chemicals cartel, this time charging aluminium fluoride producers a total of €4.97 million for price fixing. Italy’s Fluorsid and Switzerland’s Minmet, Société des Industries Chimique du Fluor of Tunisia, and Mexico’s Industrial Quimica de Mexico and Q.B. Industrias were charged over €1,5 million. Norway’s Boliden Odda avoided a fine by revealing information on the cartel.

Pharmaceuticals

Sanofi’s shot in the arm:
French pharmaceuticals firm Sanofi-aventis has opened a €100 million vaccine production facility in France, intended to meet growing global demand – the company predicts world demand for vaccines will double by 2016. The facility can produce vaccines against 20 diseases, but can readily be switched to make flu vaccines in the event of a pandemic.

Cholesterol drug
US drugmaker Merck has met with the FDA over the US regulator’s surprise rejection of experimental cholesterol drug MK-542A (formerly known as Cordaptive) in April. Merck says the FDA recommends waiting for the company’s Thrive clinical trial to complete in 2013 before resubmitting – a long delay for a drug Merck hoped could earn $2 billion per year. The company says it hopes to present new data to the FDA in 2010.

Pfizer fined $975,000:
Pfizer has agreed to pay a near $1 billion fine to settle allegations that it violated the Clean Air Act at its former manufacturing facility in Groton, Connecticut, US. The fine doesn’t relate to a specific leak – Pfizer was in violation of the Act for failing to properly monitor its plant to quickly detect and repair any air pollutant leaks as part of its manufacture of bulk pharmaceutical materials.

Melnyk battles on:
Eugene Melnyk, the founder and former CEO of Canadian pharmaceuticals company Biovail, has failed in his bid to convince the company’s shareholders to install a new board of directors at the firm. However, Melnyk has disputed the validity of the vote, and vowed to take the matter to court.

Pharma lobbying spend soars:
The amount of money the pharmaceutical industry spends lobbying the US government rose to $168 million in 2007 – an industry record, and 32 per cent higher than 2006 – Washington watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity has calculated. During 2007 the lobbyists succeeded in preventing legislation to curb direct to consumer drug advertising, among other issues.

Pill deal:
US generic drugmaker Barr has signed a licensing agreement to sell Bayer‘s contraceptive pill products Yasmin and Yaz in the US – despite the ongoing legal dispute between the two firms over Bayer’s patents for the drugs. Bayer will receive a percentage of the revenue Barr earns on the drugs – the exact amount depending on whether Bayer successfully appeals a March 2008 US court decision to invalidate a Yasmin patent.

Agrochemicals

Green fingers:
Dow has been awarded a 2008 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for insecticide spinetoram. The award highlights the compound’s low toxicity to non-target species, and its low impact chemical synthesis in which catalysts and most solvents and reagents are recycled.

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The UK government has just released its consultation document outlining how it plans to achieve its 2020 target to make 15 per cent of the country’s energy from renewable sources. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Berr) is now giving you 3 months to tell them what you think of the proposals.

To achieve this 1000 per cent increase on current renewable energy levels, the government says it plans to tap into wind power – and then an awful lot more wind power:

But the practicalities of installing so many wind turbines are already drawing criticism. ‘The Engineering challenges inherent in delivering a vast uplift, particularly in offshore wind, are immense, and totally underestimated if accounted for at all in the Government’s thinking,’ says Sue Ion, Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. ‘The consultation document almost acknowledges failure as it is printed by admitting that there are only 3 manufacturers in the world currently able to make the turbines, that there are not enough vessels to deploy or skilled workers in the sector.’

Aside from construction issues, wind power schemes to date have been held back by slow connection to the national grid – an issue the government plans to address through new incentives. Planning decisions for new schemes will also be accelerated, thanks to a a new centralised planning commission.

Renewable Energy Association (REA) director Philip Wolfe cautiously welcomed the proposals in general, highlighting the policy’s holistic approach in recognising that energy efficiency, buildings performance, renewable heat, power and transport need to be dealt with together, and welcomed the proposal for a simple tariff to reward investors in smaller-scale renewables. But the REA comment that the current proposals under-utilise the UK’s high resources in wave and tidal power – 50% and 35% of Europe’s wave and tidal resources, respectively.

However, ‘The key missing factor is a greater sense of urgency,’ says Wolfe. ‘We have only twelve years left and government still wants to use two of those talking about it. It should also be aiming to complete its action plan this year, not in 2010.’

Get your comments in quick!

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The children of mothers with drinking problems prefer the smell of rotten eggs to the smell of beer, according to researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. The data are published in the journal Alcohol.

Mothers were identified on the basis of their drinking habits – not on how much they drank, but on why they drank. Children apparently preferred the smell of rotten eggs if their mothers admitted to drinking in order, among other reasons, to relax or to cheer up. Those mothers were classified as ‘escape drinkers’ by the research group, but surely that would make rather a lot of us escape drinkers?

‘Children’s responses to odours provide us with a window into their emotions,’ says lead author Julie Mennella, ‘When given a choice between beer and pyridine – the smell of rotten eggs – children of mothers who drink to relieve tension and worry choose pyridine as smelling better. That’s pretty powerful.’

Other smells the children were presented with included bubblegum, green tea and chocolate. There’s no mention of how children of ‘escape chocoholics’ respond. Or, probably just as likely, the children of ‘escape green tea drinkers’.

 

 

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In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover take-over fury, life for Lipitor, and the UK win for GSK cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix.

Chemical Industry

Hexion-Huntsman deal on the rocks:
Hexion has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to back out of a deal to buy fellow US chemicals firm Huntsman for $10.6 billion (£5.4 billion) – one of the biggest pre-credit crisis deals yet to complete. Hexion parent company Apollo Management had agreed the $28 a share deal in July 2007, ending a deal Huntsman had already made with Access Industries to be bought for $25.25 per share. Hexion now argues that Huntsman’s increased net debt and below-expected earnings mean that the merger would render the combined company insolvent, so banks would no longer finance the deal. Huntsman founder Jon Huntsman maintains that the company is ‘strong and profitable,’ although ‘considerably damaged during the nearly year long period that Apollo should have used to get this transaction closed,’ adding ‘our company will fight Apollo vigorously on all fronts.’

Pharmaceuticals

Pfizer protects Lipitor:
Pfizer has secured a deal with Indian generic drug firm Ranbaxy that ensures Lipitor – at almost £13 billion in annual sales, Pfizer’s biggest product – will not face competition from cheap generic copies in the US until November 2011. Ranbaxy had been challenging Lipitor patents, which could have seen generics on the market in March 2010. In return, Ranbaxy will have 180 days as the only company allowed to sell generic copies of the drug in the US (due to US patent legislation), and will also be allowed to sell copies of Caduet, which combines Lipitor with a blood pressure drug, seven years before its 2018 patent expiration.

Harmony in Africa:
A two-year, $1.5 million project to harmonise pharmaceutical regulations in Africa has been launched by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. The project is a bid to promote drug discovery on the continent, and will include a conference bringing together governments and industry.

Czech mate:
Czech financial group PPF has made a voluntary takeover bid for local drugmaker Zentiva – but has been promptly outbid by French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi-aventis. PPF had said it would pay shareholders 950 Koruna (£31) per share, while Sanofi offered 1050 Koruna – but Zentivia’s share price rose 6.7 per cent to 1110 Koruna on the day of Sanofi’s announcement, on the suggestion of a bidding war. PPF already owns about 10 per cent of Zentiva shares, while Sanofi own 25 per cent.

GSK modifies Parkinson’s drug:
UK-based pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline has received FDA approval for Requip XL, a once a day version of its Parkinson’s treatment, based on slow release pill technology developed by SkyePharma. The drug is already approved in Europe. GSK’s original version of Requip, which was taken three times a day, lost patent protection in the US in May, and cheap generic versions of the original drug are now available.

J&J drug boost:
An FDA advisory panel have recommended that the US regulator approve Johnson & Johnson‘s experimental psoriasis drug. Analysts have estimated that sales of the drug could reach $500 million.

GSK wins NHS vaccine contract:
GlaxoSmithKline have won the UK Department of Health contract to supply the National Health Service with a cervical cancer vaccine, beating French rival Sanofi-aventis to the deal. The vaccine will be offered to all 12-13 year old girls, and from September 2009 will it also be offered to girls up to the age of 18 in a two year catch-up programme.

Energy

Battery Boost:
Germany’s Bosch and South Korea’s Samsung have agreed to form a joint venture to make and sell lithium ion batteries for use in hybrid and electric cars. The 50:50 joint venture will be based in South Korea and called SB LiMotive. The companies plan to invest $500 million in the next four to five years.

Renewable diesel:
Finnish firm Neste Oil is to build a €670 million , 800,000 tonne capacity biodiesel plant in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The plant can be run on a variety of feedstocks. The company’s NExBTL product can be blended into fossil diesel at far higher levels than conventional, fatty acid methyl ester-based biodiesel.

Agrochemicals

Dow EPA bid:
US chemicals company Dow has submitted for US Environmental Protection Agency review its SmartStax corn, which features a stack of eight genes to control above and below ground insects along with herbicide tolerance. Dow says that incorporating multiple modes of action to kill pests means refuge areas can be made smaller – so maximising the area on which crop can be grown.

Nufarm consolidates glyphosate position:
Australian agrochemicals firm Nufarm says it is investing Aus$28 million (£14 million) in deals with a number of Chinese companies to secure long-term supplies of glyphosate, used in Monsanto’s Roundup products. Nufarm has also concluded a new long-term deal to supply the glyphosate to Monsanto.

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cup

Anil Gaikwad, Vittorio Boffa and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam have a simple way to recover your precious homogeneous catalyst – anchor it to a dendrimer and trap that in a ceramic cup. The cups are made from two layers of nanoporous and macroporous alumina and don’t let anything much larger than 3 nm through.

The researchers tried out a ruthenium catalyst in the asymmetric transfer hydrogenation of acetophenone to (S)-phenylethyl alcohol, and use the cup to separate and recycle the catalyst for another reaction round. ‘The membrane cup retained greater than 99.7% of the Ru metal after stirring for three days in iPrOH’, they say.

Gadi Rothenberg of the Amsterdam team says he’s got some more cups being made right now (at the University of Twente, with whom the researchers are collaborating), so drop him a line if you want to try one. Let us know if it works for you!

A K Gaikwad et al, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 2008, ASAP. DOI: 10.1002/anie.200801116

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Congrats to the chemists and art conservators at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago, who’ve managed to make some digital recreations of sunsets which had disappeared from the watercolours of American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910). As Chemistry World reported in May 2007, they’d discovered that the white skies in watercolours like ‘For to be a farmer’s boy’ were actually meant to be coloured: they were originally painted in unstable red and orange dyes which have faded almost entirely. The recreation took some nifty use of Sers (surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy), and the results are shown below (original, left; what survives today, right).

For to be a farmer's boy

winslowhomer-1

There’s a disclaimer from the Art Institute, by the way: ‘The simulations are not meant to recreate individual brushstrokes and other delicacies of Homer’s hand. Because many factors in the aging of an artwork, such as differential fading rates for various pigments present and shifts in paper tone, make it impossible to know a watercolor’s true original appearance, the simulations are intended only to give a sense of the color balance in the compositions prior to fading and allow consideration of compositional content that was formerly lost.’

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Tobacco is being used as a force for good, according to today’s biotechnology news. Corrado Fogher, an Italian geneticist is promoting its potential as a biofuel. His biotechnology company Plantechno Srl is producing tobacco-based biodiesel which will be tested this October when engineers plan to run a one megawatt hospital power generator on the fuel.

According to Fogher, the tobacco plant holds a lot of promise as a future source of biodiesel, as it is cheaper to grow and produces higher yields than alternatives including rape seed and soy.

Meanwhile German chemical giant Bayer plans to open a pilot plant in Halle, producing biotech drugs in tobacco plants.

According to the company, the first protein produced at the new facility will be an antibody vaccine for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which could enter clinical trials as early as 2009.

Bayer is a major investor in Halle – a town in former East Germany which was devastated by a veritable exodus of its population after the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989. (See Chemistry World, February 2006, p56)

Could the tobacco plant redeem itself?

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In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover aliens on ships, GSK research job cuts, and the Ranbaxy sale.

Chemical Industry

Sodium Chlorate cartel:
The European Commission has fined producers of sodium chlorate – used as a bleach by the paper industry – for fixing the price of the chemical between 1994 and 2000. France’s Arkema and former parent company Elf Aquitaine (now part of Total) were fined €59.02 million (£46.56 million); Finnish Chemicals was fined €10.15 million; and Spain’s Aragonesas and Uralita fined €9.9 million. AkzoNobel escaped a fine by blowing the whistle on the cartel.

No aliens:
German chemical company Evonik says it has received final approval for its ballast water management system, Sedna (Safe, Effective Deactivation of Non-Indigenous Aliens) system, developed with Hamann. The technology prevents ships damaging ecosystems by stopping them introducing foreign species when they discharge their ballast water. The International Maritime Organization has stipulated that all 40,000 cargo ships currently in operation must be fitted with such systems by 2016.

More methanol:
Saudi Methanol Company, a Sabic affiliate, has expanded capacity at its methanol production complex in Jubail Industrial City – making it the world’s largest methanol production complex, and Sabic the world’s second largest methanol producer. The 1500 metric tonne per day expansion boosts capacity to 5000 metric tonnes per day.

Portfolio pruning:
US-based Air Products has sold its non-pressure emulsion business to Ashland for $92 million (£47 million) – completing the company’s disposal of its polymers business assets. Air Products says it is managing its portfolio to become a more focused, less cyclical company better positioned for higher growth.

Shutdown:
Evonik is to end orthoester production at its Niederkassel plant in Germany. The molecules are used in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry. Overcapacity, competition from China and high raw material costs mean it is no longer economically viable to make them in Europe, says the company.

Pharmaceuticals

Ranbaxy sale:
Japanese pharmaceuticals firm Daiichi Sankyo has agreed to buy Ranbaxy, India’s largest generic drug maker, in a deal worth up to $4.6 billion. Daiichi is to buy the 34.8 per cent stake owned by the Singh family who founded the company, and seek to buy a controlling majority via an open offer at Rs737 (£9) per share.
But Pfizer may weigh in with a counter offer, according to an unnamed source quoted in India’s Business Standard newspaper. ‘Pfizer does not comment on market rumours or speculation,’ a Pfizer spokesman told Chemistry World when contacted about the possible deal.

GSK job cuts hit chemists:
GlaxoSmithKline is cutting the jobs of hundreds of scientists as it restructures its drug R&D operations. The job cuts represent around 2 per cent of the company’s 17,000 global R&D workforce, a GSK spokeswoman told Chemistry World, equating to around 350 jobs lost.
Before the cuts were announced, GSK’s head of drug discovery Patrick Vallance told a conference on 9 June that research teams will be divided into smaller, focused groups that would concentrate on a single disease area – and will be paid by results.
New GSK chief executive Andrew Witty also says that the company will ‘diversify and derisk‘ by increase its focus on vaccines, non-prescription goods, and sales in emerging markets including Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Life science giant:
US firm Invitrogen, which makes chemical reagent kits and related products for genetic research including rapid DNA sequencing, is to buy Applied Biosystems for $6.7 billion. Applied Biosystems makes instrument-based systems and consumables for the same market. The combined company will be the largest reagent and system supplier to the biotech industry, with around $3.5 billion in combined sales.

Pfizer university alliance:
Pfizer has announced a new three year, $9.5 million agreement with the University of California San Francisco, intended to speed the conversion of basic research into new diagnostics and drugs. Pfizer describes the deal as a ‘novel experiment to advance new drug discovery,’ because the collaboration isn’t limited to a specific area of research, and is instead intended to facilitate Pfizer and UCSF scientists working together on multiple projects of mutual interest.

Aids drug price freeze:
Drugmakers Boehringer Ingelheim and Gilead have agreed to a request by the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF) to freeze the price they charge government agencies for antiretroviral drugs. The AHF wrote to 10 pharmaceutical companies – including Merck, GSK, Abbott and Pfizer – asking them to freeze their prices to help flat-funded HIV/Aids programmes provide access to more people needing the drugs. AHF says it hopes the move by BI and Gilead will set a precedent the other companies will follow.

FDA-EMEA streamline drug application:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) have collaborated over new tests that drug companies must complete when registering new drugs. The test – which analyses urine biomarkers to assess the impact of a new drug on the kidneys – is the first use of a new framework that allows companies to submit a single application to both regulators, cutting their admin costs.

Antibody hunt:
Denmark-based biotech firm Symphogen has licensed its proprietary antibody technology to Genentech in a deal worth up to $330 million. The US biotech company will use the technology to identify novel targets for infectious diseases.

Credit: NIAID

Energy

More metallisation:
US chemicals company DuPont is to more than double its production of metallisation pastes – used in silicon solar cells – at is facility in Dongguan, China. The pastes are used to improve conductance between the different layers of silicon solar panels. DuPont says it will more than triple its sales to the solar market to exceed $1 billion within the next five years.

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Wake up and smell the coffee – because according to new research, the aroma alone is enough to reduce the stress of sleep deprivation. As a result of the Maillard reaction and Stecker degradation, as well as other chemical reactions, roasting coffee beans release a variety of volatiles including 2-furfurylthiol, 4-vinylguaiacol, several alkyl pyrazines, furanones, acetaldehyde and propanal. Now Han-Seok Seo and colleagues have found that the smell of medium-roasted Colombian coffee beans trigger changes in the brain of rats that suggests it helps them cope better with sleep deprivation than rats that were not exposed to coffee’s rich aroma. The researchers found that the smell of coffee triggered the expression of several proteins that had anxiety-reducing or antioxidant effects. ‘In other words, the stress caused by sleep loss via caffeine may be alleviated through smelling the coffee aroma,’ the authors conclude. (DOI: 10.1021/jf8001137)
Coffee in cup#

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The terms carbon-neutral and carbon capture have made it into the latest edition of the Collins Concise English Dictionary:

 

carbon-neutral adjective  not affecting the total amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.

carbon capture noun  the capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide, especially as a technique to prevent climate change.

 

‘We found, not surprisingly, that terms relating to the environment were at the forefront of language change,” says Ian Brookes, managing editor, Collins English Dictionaries. 

 

‘The new entries go alongside existing “carbon compounds” (if you’ll excuse the pun) in the dictionary,’ Brookes told Chemistry World, ‘such as carbon credit, carbon footprint, carbon sink and carbon trading.’

 

Collins is following the New Oxford American Dictionary, who added carbon-neutral last year, after naming it their 2006 word of the year. The word of the year accolade is awarded in recognition of a word’s position ‘on the cusp of ubiquity.’

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