Chemicals firms venture into biomass feedstock

10 January 2011 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Chemical companies are increasingly developing processing technologies that use biomass for feedstock

Rex Features
Feedstock diversification is a major initiative for most chemical companies these days - not only to counteract the volatility in crude oil prices but to tackle environmental criticism of the use of traditional petroleum-based feedstock. Start-up companies, with the help of government incentives, are increasingly offering biomass as a viable solution.

"An increasing awareness of the impact of fossil fuel and coal use on the environment has resulted in a continual search for less polluting feedstock," reported US-based consulting firm Nexant in its 2010 Global Petrochemical Feedstock study.

"Biological hydrocarbon becomes more attractive under a high oil price, although continued huge investments, advanced research, new technologies and government support will be required to enable commercial production."

A report published in June by the World Economic Forum noted potential global revenue of $10bn-15bn (€7.6bn-11.4bn) for bio-based bulk chemicals and bioplastics using biomass feedstock and conversion technologies by 2020.

Bio-based chemicals are expected to increase their share of overall chemical production to 9% from the current 1% by 2020.

"In an oil-based society, the US is at a competitive disadvantage. America has only 2% of the world's oil reserves, while it uses more than 20% of the world's oil," said Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Denmark-based enzymes company Novozymes, which contributed to the report.

"In a bio-based society, America has a huge resource advantage. The US has the world's largest reserve of biomass available and more than 70% of the planned second-generation biorefineries," he said.

Many of the current biomass-based chemicals being developed are focusing on intermediates such as succinic acid, n-butanol, acrylic acid, adipic acid, acetyls and even methyl methacrylate (MMA), says Mark Morgan, principal, energy and chemicals consulting, at Nexant.

"In my view, the major focus is the production of oxygen-containing intermediates rather than hydrocarbons, such as olefins [and] aromatics. One good reason for this is that the latter require in general, conversion of biomass into an oxygenated intermediate from which the oxygen will be removed by a petrochemical process," he adds.

  "We're targeting to compete with oil priced at $30/bbl assuming no tax credits"
David Sudolsky, CEO, Anellotech
Morgan notes that bio-based succinic acid production is of particular interest because of fermentation technologies that can sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) for use as feedstock, as well as potential new applications that can be derived from the product. Among its largest emerging applications is the production of 1,4-butanediol (BDO), which is widely used in a range of applications including engineering plastics and spandex. Other potential bio-succinic acid markets include biopolymers, polyurethanes (PUs) and polyester polyols.

Major chemical companies investing in bio-succinic acid commercialization include Netherlands-based DSM in a joint venture with French starch derivatives producer Roquette; Germany-based BASF in collaboration with Dutch lactic acid producer Purac; and Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical. US-based renewable chemical companies in this field include BioAmber (formerly DNP Green Technology) and Myriant Technologies.

"Microorganism performance for biosuccinic acid production is improving, and demonstration plants have been built while major players in BDO such as BASF and Mitsubishi have a keen interest in this development. In the right location, the commercialization of this technology looks very exciting," says Morgan. "The scale of production for biosuccinic acid again need not be excessive, given the current scale of operation of maleic anhydride/Davy Process BDO operations in the world today."

In addition to CO2, feedstock for biosuccinic acid production can range from glucose, mixed C5 and C6, and glycerin. In the case of bio-based MMA production, sugars can be converted into hydroxybutyric acid and then into 2-hydroxy, 2-methyl-propionic acid. Dehydration then produces methacrylic acid, notes Morgan. MMA applications include coatings and specialty polymers.

"America has a huge resource advantage. The US has the world's largest reserve of biomass available"
Steen Riisgaard, CEO, Novozymes
Development of bio-MMA is still at an early stage but results are encouraging, he adds. Germany-based chemical firm Evonik Industries and France-based Arkema are reportedly looking into it. Nexant reports global demand growth for MMA in excess of GDP, which encourages new investment.

"Many MMA plants around the world are medium-scale, in the 50,000-100,000 tonne/year range, which makes the scale of a biomass-based operation using fermentation processing manageable," says Morgan. He notes that the biomass requirement is limited compared with thermochemical processes subject to actual yields.

"In the US, around 3 short tons [2.7 tonnes] of corn are needed per ton of ethanol. Ideally the biomass needed for MMA would be higher but still not excessive," he adds.

While biomass-based chemicals are still in the development phase, the conversion of biomass feedstock into energy is already a well-established technology. Start-up companies such as US-based ZeaChem and New Zealand-based LanzaTech are going into both markets.

Zeachem says its 250,000 gal/year (66,050 liter/year) biorefinery being built in Boardman, Oregon, US, is on schedule for start-up by the end of 2011.

The facility will produce cellulosic ethanol fuel, as well as intermediate chemicals such as acetic acid and ethyl acetate (etac)using wood biomass.

LanzaTech's gas fermentation technology can produce ethanol fuel, as well as 2,3-butanediol, acetic acid, isopropanol (IPA), n-butanol, acetone and isoprene from industrial waste gases, gases generated from biomass, and/or hydrocarbon gases like coal gas and natural gas.

The company expects to start up a demonstration ethanol/chemicals plant in China by the third quarter of 2011. The plant will use steel mill flue gas as feedstock.

LanzaTech's process has been demonstrated since November 2008 with a 15,000 gal/year ethanol plant in Glenbrook, New Zealand, using waste flue gas streams from a nearby operating steel mill, says CEO Jennifer Holmgren.

"Diverse and plentiful sources of input gases, which do not compete with food production, provide us a big opportunity to meet the growing demand for ethanol. By simply harnessing today's steel mill waste gases, our technology could produce more than 30bn gal/year of ethanol," says Holmgren.

She estimates that 65% of steel mills worldwide are using technology that could be retrofitted with the LanzaTech process. "By using these waste gases to produce fuel ethanol, a profit potential in excess of $100/ton of carbon monoxide is possible," she adds.

Instead of looking into chemical intermediates, US-based start-up company Anellotech proved that it can easily produce upstream high-volume aromatics such as benzene, toluene, xylenes (BTX) and even olefins using cellulosic biomass via catalytic pyrolysis.

The company's patented process and catalyst technology was developed by Anellotech founder George Huber, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Unlike gasification, which results in a mixture of carbon and hydrogen called synthesis gas (syngas), pyrolysis turns biomass into liquid fuels in a single-step economical process at a very large scale, says Anellotech CEO David Sudolsky.

"There is no biological approach in our processing and we use a single-step fluid-bed reactor, which eliminates the need for integration between various chemical steps in producing BTX. Our products are absolutely identical to petroleum-based BTX," he adds.

The company's inexpensive and recyclable zeolite catalyst is also similar to widely-used catalysts in the petroleum refining industry. The patented process can currently create 50 gallons of BTX per tonne of biomass. Anellotech aims to produce 85 gal/tonne in the future. By-products of the pyrolysis process include water, as well as CO2 and carbon monoxide gases that are reusable.

"The energy value of a tonne of waste wood, for example, was probably $20 and our process is economical up to beyond $100/tonne. We're targeting to compete with oil priced at $30/bbl assuming no tax credits or subsidies," says Sudolsky.

Anellotech estimates value of the global BTX market of 30bn gal in 2006 at $100bn. The market is expected to grow at 4-4.5%/year, or 1.2bn gal/year.

The company expects to have a small-scale commercial plant with a capacity of 8m gal/year to be completed by late 2014. Larger plants will follow, says Sudolsky.

"We are on track with our commercial yield goal. Our key priority is raising Series A venture financing. We are also looking to bring in a strategic partner to accelerate the process commercialization, as well as line up the first customers for the technology," he says.

Anellotech is looking into collaborating and contracting with feedstock developers and suppliers. "We can use and have been working with any type of lignocellulosic biomass such as sawdust, sugarcane bagasse, corn stover [and] energy crops. Because of the higher profitability coming from our process, we can afford to contract and pay higher prices for feedstock. The paper industry is currently operating on this kind of business model," adds Sudolsky.

For the latest green regulatory, funding, and developments, read the ICIS Green Chemicals blog

By: Doris de Guzman
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