15 October 2007 00:00 [Source: ICB]
Improving technology and higher demand for green products is heating up development of lipid-based industrial chemicals
Doris de Guzman/New York
CHEMICAL COMPANIES are looking to fats and oils and other agriculture-based raw materials to fatten up their green portfolios as increasing regulations, combined with continued rising crude oil costs, diminish the profitability of petroleum-based products.
Approximately 20% of vegetable oils and fats produced worldwide are for non-food use, with oleochemicals at 14%, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Total fat and oil consumption during the 2006-2007 marketing year was projected at 153m tonnes.
"Last year, an estimated 875m pounds [397m kg] of US soybean oil was used in industrial products. It is projected that over 1bn pounds will be used this year," an official from the United Soybean Board (USB) says.
Around 22 new soybean oil-based products were introduced last year, and 19 were in 2005.
"With no relief in sight for natural gas and crude petroleum prices, the cost of many products we use daily should continue to rise. The use of alternative resources is catching the corporate eye, as well as the government, as companies continue to look for answers to cut costs," the USB official says.
The development of soy polyols for plastics applications is considered one of the biggest achievements in the vegetable oil-based industrial products market.
MOLDING A NEW INDUSTRY
Last year, Cargill introduced its BiOH soy polyol for multiple plastics applications, and Arkema launched its Vikol 1 & 2 soy polyols for polyurethane foams and coatings. Dow Chemical last month launched its natural oil polyol technology Renuva, which uses up to 60% fewer fossil fuel resources than conventional polyol manufacturing technology.
"Several new plants to produce soy polyols should come online by the end of 2007 or early 2008, which will increase industrial use of soy oil by 10% or more," the USB official says. The organization estimates annual US petroleum-based polyols demand at 3bn pounds and global demand at 9bn pounds.
Commercial quantities of Dow's natural oil-based polyols produced in Houston, Texas, US, are expected to be available this quarter. Initial offerings are from soybean oil, although Dow said it is exploring other vegetable oil options for polyols.
"Polyols based on Renuva have the performance that rivals petroleum-based polyols, and are designed not to have the odor that plagued previous generations of bio-based polyols," says Erin O'Driscoll, business development manager, Dow Polyurethanes.
Cargill says global demand for BiOH polyols continues to be strong. The agribusiness company started its soy polyols manufacturing facility in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last month and also opened a BiOH polyols research and development center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, in August.
About 2,200bbls of crude oil are saved for every 450 tonnes of BiOH polyol produced to replace petroleum-based polyols, says Jim Stoppert, senior director of Industrial BioProducts at Cargill.
"We are in a unique position to offer customers products from secure alternative feedstock," says Stoppert. "Our products' functional capabilities must equal or succeed petroleum-based competition for them to gain acceptance in the marketplace. So far it has been a successful approach for us."
Ashland itself is incorporating soy oil into the company's new Envirez unsaturated polyester resin formulations. Ashland also markets foundry binders that use a rapeseed-oil-based methyl ester as a raw material.
"Our primary goal is to develop bio-based specialty chemicals," says David Jones, bioproducts director at Ashland. "The market today is rather small for chemical products but the rate of growth is tremendous. As the performance and cost continue to move closer to petrochemicals, then we will see a more widespread adoption."
The Ashland-Cargill joint venture plans to start a 65,000 tonne/year propylene glycol (PG) facility in Europe over the next 2-3 years. "During that time frame, we will look for other plant locations globally as well as planning the bio-based chemical products that we want to commercialize with Cargill," Jones adds.
Private sources estimate global fats and oils consumption in biofuels exceeding 10% of total use in 2006-2007. Interests for biodiesel's coproduct glycerin as a new chemical feedstock source have been rising.
In April, Solvay started in Tavaux, France, its 10,000 tonne/year ECH plant fed with rapeseed-oil-based glycerin. The company is also building a 100,000 tonne ECH plant in Map Ta Phut, Thailand, which is expected to start in 2009. ECH's major applications include the production of epoxy resins.
"The global ECH market growth is estimated at 4%/year," says Solvay spokesman Martial Tardy. "China has more than 20%/year growth. Our ECH facility in Thailand will come onstream in time to meet the growing Asian demand."
Solvay has already secured its glycerin supply in Europe but is currently looking to secure around 100,000 tonnes refined glycerin in Asia for its Thailand plant.
Dow is currently beta-testing its glycerin-based PG called, PG Renewable (PGR), with its customers. The company anticipates limited commercial quantities this autumn.
"PGR will demonstrate economic and environmental benefits, and its quality is expected to be comparable to that of our industrial-grade PG," says Maddy Bricco, global product director of Dow's PG/PO (propylene glycol/propylene oxide).
UOP is developing its own glycerin-based PG processing technology as well as another technology that uses vegetable oils in a fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit, which the company says will achieve higher propylene yield without affecting gasoline yield or octane levels. Commercialization of UOP's glycerin-based PG is expected in early 2008.
"Our current focus is in the renewable PG development as we can produce a high value product while leveraging glycerin's lower cost and oversupply," says Jennifer Holmgren, UOP director of renewable energy and chemicals.
"The other technology is not yet in commercial use because the cost of the feedstock used versus the value of the product produced is not yet favorable for sustainable production," she adds.
Huntsman says it plans to commercialize its proprietary glycerin-based PG by 2008, which will initially be manufactured in Conroe, Texas, US. The company is also developing other glycerin-based technologies in its R&D center in The Woodlands, Texas.
"Huntsman has investigated a number of glycerin-based products including glycerin oligomers, glycerin carbonate and ECH, as well as making surfactants from methyl ester and other vegetable oil-based hydrophobes," says David Hester, global business development director for performance products.
"A key to moving forward on any of these projects is understanding the economics versus the current technologies. We want to be sure the economics of bio-based products are sustainable in addition to the products themselves," he adds.
CARGILL BIOH POLYOLS
Received the 2007 President's Green Chemistry Challenge award from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Best Emerging Technology for the Society of Plastic Engineers' 2007 Environmental Stewardships award.
Received the 2006 Technology Innovation award by the Alliance for the Polyurethane Industry.
In 2007, the company received the Glycerine Innovation Award from the Soap and Detergent Association and the National Biodiesel Board.
The company received the Pierre Potier trophy in 2006 for "Innovation in chemistry benefiting the environment" award delivered by the French Ministry of the Industry.For global pricing information on glycerin, go to www.icispricing.com
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