NPRA supplement: Renewable chemicals gear for commercialization

26 March 2011 00:00  [Source: ICB]

The petrochemical sector will soon have an array of renewable raw materials to choose from, as companies gear up to commercialization through partnerships

Biobased chemicals activities are at fever pitch this year, as several start-up companies step up their efforts towards commercialization phase.

In the biobased intermediates, products such as acrylic acid, adipic acid, 1,4-butanediol (BDO) and succinic acid are among those that are considered frontrunners in advancing product and process development. Biosuccinic acid producers US-based Myriant Technologies and BioAmber are already neck and neck in forming partnerships and future marketing of succinic acid and its derivatives.


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In January, Myriant announced a joint venture with Thailand petrochemical producer PTT Chemical (PTTCH) for deployment of Myriant's succinic acid technology in southeast Asia. The companies did not disclose further information about the joint venture, although a source from PTTCH noted its intention of investing in a new bioplastic facility within Asia as part of its recent tie-up with Myriant.

PTTCH parent company, PTT Group, is also in collaboration with Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical (MCC) for the development of biomass-based polybutylene succinate (PBS). MCC announced in December its plans to establish operations in Thailand with PTT for the production of lower-cost bio-PBS, with a target initial capacity of around 20,000 short tons/year by 2015. MCC already produces its biodegradable PBS polymer made from petroleum-based succinic acid in Japan, and sells it worldwide under the trademark GS Pla.

Petrochemical-derived PBS demand worldwide is estimated at around 3,000 tonnes/year, says Jim Millis, chief technology officer at BioAmber. "PBS demand is expected to grow to 50,000 tonnes/year if the current monomer of succinic acid is replaced with biobased product," he adds.

BioAmber is currently marketing PBS with more than 51% biobased content produced by its Chinese subsidiary Sinoven Biopolymer. Applications for the modified bio-PBS include food service coffee lids, cups, dishes, plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers, disposable razors, writing instruments and cosmetic packaging.

"We believe that the availability of lower-cost, biobased succinic acid will drive the growth of PBS," says BioAmber president Jean-Francois Huc. "PBS is a biopolymer with tremendous potential, especially when blended with polylactic acid (PLA). Biobased succinic acid makes PBS more cost competitive as well," he adds.

"Our focus is now on our commercialization journey"

Christophe Schilling

CEO, Genomatica 

BioAmber says it will soon disclose additional strategic partnerships that have been established to commercialize succinic acid and modified PBS. The company currently produces biosuccinic acid at its 3,000 tonne/year demonstration facility in Pomacle, France.

BioAmber will start construction of its planned 20,000-30,000 tonnes/year North American plant - which is expected to start up in early 2013 - later this year. The company is already in discussions about a third facility in Asia that would come online in 2014 or 2015. "The Asian plant will be larger than the North American plant," says Huc.

Myriant, meanwhile, is building its 30m lb/year (13,600 tonnes/year) biosuccinic acid facility in Louisiana, US, which is expected to be operational by 2012. The facility will use sorghum and carbon dioxide for feedstock.

Myriant this month announced its collaboration with UK engineering firm Davy Process Technology for the production of BDO, tetrahydrofuran (THF) and gamma-butyro-lactone using biosuccinic acid as feedstock.

Davy's BDO production technology, which accounted for more than half a million tonnes/year of BDO production worldwide, currently uses petroleum-based maleic anhydride for feedstock, says Alif Saleh, senior director, specialty chemicals at Myriant.

"Davy is one of the world's premier BDO licensors, with significant market share and installed base. This partnership opens up an enormous market for Myriant's biosuccinic acid, which is already in the BDO application," says Saleh. "By sourcing biosuccinic acid from Myriant, companies that are already producing BDO can transform their business into a greener and less volatile business."

The partnership will also focus on engineering a process that will produce BDO directly from the purified fermentation broth thus avoiding the recovery and purification requirements of succinic acid, added Saleh.

Myriant notes tremendous increase in inquiries from existing BDO producers and customers in the process of making a decision regarding new BDO plants and capacities. "There are two main drivers from the market: the desire to move away from volatile petroleum-based feedstock and the desire to move into greener products," Saleh notes.

BioAmber's Huc agreed on the strong potential demand growth coming from biobased BDO, but noted its intention to focus more on the liquid phase hydrogenation technology rather than the vapor phase hydrogenation route through the Davy process.

"We believe the low-cost route to BDO and THF is via liquid phase hydrogenation, where there is no need to evaporate and crystallize succinic acid once it has been purified from broth, and there is no need to esterify the succinic," says Huc. "Our focus is to couple our low-cost succinic acid process with liquid phase hydrogenation to cost-effectively convert renewable sugars to BDO and THF."

"[This] partnership opens up an enormous market for Myriant's biosuccinic acid"
Alif Saleh
Senior director, specialty chemicals, Myriant 

Huc adds that the firm is, however, open to working with companies interested in BDO from succinic, regardless of technology "as we believe our succinic technology will be low cost in the industry," Huc said.

US-based sustainable chemicals producer Genomatica noted that the succinic acid-to-BDO route is not as cost-effective compared to the company's direct bio-BDO production, which involves only fermentation and separation processes using sugar feedstock.

"Our direct production route to BDO eliminates the need for the isolation and purification of succinic acid and the subsequent high-temperature and high-pressure steps for BDO conversion via catalytic hydrogenation," said Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling. "We estimate that the additional processing steps between succinic acid and BDO could add at least 20 cents/lb (€0.36/kg) to the cost of the final product," he added.

Genomatica recently raised $45m (€32m) from new and existing investors to complete its planned demonstration facility this year. Further details for the demonstration facility will soon be announced, said Schilling. "Our focus is on commercialization. We have achieved our cost, quality and performance targets. We're continuing to provide product samples to our customers," he added.

Genomatica plans the first commercial-scale facility in late 2013, pending successful operation of its demo facility. The company expects to have partners involved in both the scale-up process and downstream applications development, said Schilling.

For the past few years, US bioplastic developer Metabolix has been developing C4 chemicals using its polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) platform. The company just confirmed its intention towards producing bio-BDO.

"Our initial focus is on C4 chemicals targeting the $3bn pyrrolidones and BDO markets," said Rick Eno, president and CEO of Metabolix. "During 2010, we successfully scaled up the fermentation process for C4 chemicals, with our commercial entry focusing on the pyrrolidones segment of the value chain. This will be followed by BDO production based on direct hydrogenation of gamma butyrolactone (GBL) produced in the process."

Metabolix aims to deliver product samples to potential customers before the end of first quarter. "This is the first step in the systematic development of our offering in this strategically important value chain," Eno added.

"The next step is to complete engineering of the commercial-scale facility"
Chas Eggert
President and CEO, OPX Biotechnologies 

The company's PHA bioplastic under the Mirel brand is already running at commercial scale and is produced by Telles, its joint venture company with US agribusiness firm Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Metabolix said its PHA platform allows the company to produce a range of C2-C5 chemicals using a common fermentation and recovery process. Metabolix' chemicals activities are outside of its Telles joint venture.

After commercialization of its bio-BDO and GBL, the company's next focus is on C3 chemicals. "We have already demonstrated proof of concept for C3s targeting the $7bn acrylic and acrylates market," said Eno.

US renewable chemical firm OPX Biotechnologies (OPXBIO) intends to be the first to commercially produce bio-based acrylic acid by 2014, also through strategic partnerships.

The company is currently scaling up to a 1m lb/year demonstration-scale plant, which it expects to operate in 2011-2012 through a contract bioprocessing facility located in North America, said OPXBIO president and CEO Chas Eggert. Partnership for the demo phase will be announced soon, he said.

"The demo facility is to confirm that our process technologies and economics will work on a larger scale, as well as to generate bioacrylic products for our downstream customers to evaluate," said Eggert. "The next step is to complete engineering of the commercial-scale facility and have it ready for operation by Q4 2014."

OPXBIO has achieved commercial-scale manufacturing costs of 70 cents/lb for corn sugar-based bioacrylic acid and 55 cents/lb using sugar feedstock from Brazil. Its ultimate target is 50 cents/lb using corn sugar and less than 40 cents/lb using cane sugar.

By: Doris de Guzman
+1 713 525 2653

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