News focus: Biorefineries prepare for commercialization

21 July 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Correction: The ICIS Chemical Business  story titled "News focus: Biorefineries prepare for commercialization" has been corrected below to reflect that Glycos Biotechnologies is based in Texas, US, not Illinois, US.

The biochemical refining industry is finally ramping up for commercialization, despite the challenges ahead in technological acceptance, integration and funding

There was a lot of optimism in the air at this year's BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing conference, held near Washington, D.C., US, as several start-up companies announced milestones had been reached in the drive to commercialize several bio-based chemicals and advanced biofuels.

Illinois, US-based Elevance Renewable Sciences will soon produce bio-based specialty chemicals such as 9-decenoic acid and esters, C18 dicarboxylic acids and esters, as well as alpha and internal olefins, oleochemicals and advanced biofuels at a biorefinery being built in Surabaya, Indonesia. The 180,000 tonne/year biorefinery is a joint venture (JV) between Elevance and Indonesian oleochemical producer Wilmar International.

The facility, which will come on stream in 2011, will use natural oils and waste oils as feedstock. Elevance will begin producing samples of both dicarboxylic acids and 9-decenoic acid and their esters for product qualification in the fourth quarter, and plan to sell truckload quantities in early 2011.

Prices for 9-decenoic acid are around $1,000/kg (€800/kg), says Andy Shafer, Elevance vice president of sales.

"The market for 9-decenoic acid is small and has been previously produced only through an expensive fermentation process," says Shafer. "We can now produce and market 9-decenoic acid at high volumes and low price levels, aside from producing renewable-based and more cost-economic dibasic acids."

Using Elevance's metathesis technology, Shafer said it would be able to sell 9-decenoic acid closer to the $2/kg range, enabling significant new uses for the intermediate chemical, including the production of dicarboxylic acids. The dibasic acids are priced in the range of $5/kg, he adds.

Another US-based biochemical company expanding in Asia is Texas-based Glycos Biotechnologies. GlycosBio, in a JV with Malaysian biotech hub Bio-XCell, is building a 20,000 tonne/year biorefinery in Nusajaya, Iskandar, Malaysia, which can convert crude glycerin, free fatty acids or palm fatty acid distillate to technical-grade ethanol, isoprene and acetone. The facility, which is expandable to 40,000 tonnes/year, is expected to be completed in early 2012.

The company's technology can also convert glycerin into hydrogen and 1,2 propanediol as well as organic acids such as formate, lactate and succinate, said CEO Rich Cilento in an interview at the BIO conference.

"While we can also use sugar as feedstock, crude glycerin is a strategic long-term material for us in terms of using lower-value feedstock and producing higher-value chemicals," said Cilento. "Malaysia is a perfect fit because we can rapidly implement our technology there, as well as have easy access to various oleochemical and biodiesel producers."

And GlycosBio is already planning to expand in Europe and South America.

At the conference, Dutch chemical company DSM announced the formation of a new JV company called Reverdia with France-based starch and polyols producer Roquette Freres. Reverdia will produce and market bio-based succinic acid and derivatives on applications such as 1,4 butanediol, polyurethane (PU) resins and biopolymers such as polybutylene succinate.

"Biorefineries will have to employ the best possible technologies to ensure that bio-based products break even"
World Eeconomic Forum 

Reverdia will build a 10,000 tonne/year bio-succinic acid plant, which will start in late 2011, Will van den Tweel, business manager for DSM White Biotechnology, said at the conference.

The location was not disclosed, but he noted that Reverdia plans to have dedicated sources in the US, Asia and Europe.

Trial production of Reverdia's bio-based succinic acid has already started at a demonstration plant at Lestrem, France, which was built in 2009, Van den Tweel said.

Another France-based bio-succinic acid producer, Bioamber, is already ahead, not only in commercial production but in forming licensing deals and partnerships. Bioamber is a JV between US-based DNP Green Technology and French agro-industrial consortium Agro-Industrie Recherches et Developpements.

Bioamber is producing biosuccinic acid at its 2,000 tonne/year plant in Pomacle, France. Two bio-succinic acid plants - each with initial capacities of 25,000-30,000 tonnes/year - are in the planning stage, said DNP Green CEO Jean-François Huc. One would be in North America and the other in Asia, he said.

At the BIO conference, DNP announced that it has licensed certain technology from US chemical company DuPont regarding production of bio-succinic acid derivatives.

"While we can also use sugar as feedstock, crude glycerin is a strategic long-term material for us in terms of using lower-value feedstock and producing higher- value chemicals"
Rich Cilento, CEO, Glycos Biotechnologies 
The companies did not disclose specific products but a DuPont spokeswoman says it will not be involved in any marketing under this deal. DuPont, however, has the right of first refusal to secure offtake from future commercial plants.

"DuPont's technology will accelerate our development program and shorten our time to market," says Huc. "Our deal with DuPont will help to ensure that we are first to market, and it could reduce the commercial risk associated with building large plants."

In April, DNP Green also formed a partnership with Japan's Mitsui Chemicals to exclusively distribute Bioamber's biosuccinic acid in Asia. As the biorefining industry prepares for large-scale commercial production, significant challenges, such as technology acceptance, issues in value chain integration and funding difficulties still loom ahead.

To overcome these challenges, multiple stakeholders coming from public and private organizations need to play an active role in promoting the industrialization of biorefinery systems, says the report, The Future of Industrial Biorefineries, released by the World Economic Forum during the BIO convention.

"Biorefineries will have to employ the best possible technologies to ensure that bio-based products break even.

"This will require the concerted action of many non-traditional partners - such as grain processors, chemical companies, and technology players - to cover all aspects of the complex biomass value chain, from feedstock production to end-user distribution," the report said.

The report estimates that by the year 2020, the biorefining industry has the potential to inject upwards of $230bn into the global economy, while bio-based chemicals can increase their share of overall chemicals production to 9%. "The actual ownership of biomass conversion and the respective sale of end-products is estimated to yield revenue potentials of $80bn for biofuels, $10-15bn for bio-based bulk chemicals and bioplastics alone, and $65bn for power and heat by 2020," the report said.

Read the Green Chemicals blog for the latest on alternative processing

Interview with Elevance Renewable Sciences

Interview with Glycos Biotechnologies

Interview with DNP Green Technology

By: Doris de Guzman
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