INSIGHT: The promise of a bio-BDO revolution

20 June 2011 17:53  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--Bio-routes to 1,4-butanediol (BDO) could revolutionise the technologies that underpin production of the chemical and bring new players into the market.

A new phase of process development, this time on the cusp between chemistry and biology, looks set to transform the polymer and other value chains linked to the chemical.

The opportunities are of such a magnitude that even established participants are taking a hard look at bio-based synthesis routes, according to consultants Nexant ChemSystems. And the technology race is attracting widespread attention.

Bio-succinic acid producer BioAmber said on Monday it had been awarded a 2011 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The company has established the first large-scale bio-based production of succinic acid, the BDO precursor.

It has a succinic acid plant in Europe and will start construction of a second plant in North America later this year. Its product portfolio includes modified polybutylene succinate (mPBS), a high-temperature biopolymer that is also biodegradable.

“The global BDO industry appears to be on the cusp of a technological revolution”, Nexant ChemSystems says.

“Biological routes to BDO are being perfected which offer tremendous promise to new participants, but threaten to dramatically alter the business from the perspective of established producers,” it adds in the prospectus for a new report.

Technological upheavals have characterised the BDO business in the past.

Industrial production began in Germany in the 1930s and the process was used to make feedstock for butadiene, itself used in the manufacture of BUNA-S styrene butadiene rubber.

Safe handling of acetylene was a barrier to entry for the business, which was supplied exclusively by BASF, International Specialty Products (ISP) and DuPont until the 1970s.

The second phase was characterised by the introduction to the business of new challengers, the consultants add.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Chemical broke in with a new process route; another technology, using propylene oxide (PO), was commercialised by ARCO.

Davy Process Technology developed a maleic anhydride (MA) route in the early 1990s.

The chemical achieved commodity status later in the decade as world-scale plants were introduced.

But while existing production routes have been modified, potential bio-based synthetic pathways have been developed. Most rely on succinic acid derived from biomass or a sugar substrate. A conversion to BDO can be achieved using a conventional Davy approach.

Nexant ChemSystems says it wants to analyse and compare the available technologies and the potential markets for BDO produced from renewable versus petrochemical sources.

Market participants currently may not expect much impact and, clearly, cost-effectiveness is key. But when demonstration and larger-scale production units are up and running – probably within two years – attitudes may change.

Big players in the chemical industry have already begun to tie up with some of the break-out bio-based firms.

Mitsubishi Chemical has a research agreement with US based Genomatica to base its entire production of C4 chemicals on plant-derived feedstocks by 2025. It wants to build a 40,000-50,000 tonne/year bio-based BDO plant in Asia by 2015.

The high price of butadiene feedstock is helping drive the search for alternative process routes. Last week, for instance, press reports suggested that Mitsubishi Chemical would cut back BDO production at a Yokkaichi plant for a month in response to high feedstock costs.

Genomatica has demonstrated the production of bio-BDO at a Tate & Lyle facility in the US. It wants to have world-scale plants up and running in Europe, the US and Asia by 2012. Tate & Lyle is headquartered in the UK.

Netherlands-based DSM and France’s Roquette are working on a synthesis route to succinic acid, as are a number of other players including Germany’s BASF and the biotech firms Purac, OPXBIO, Myriant Technologies and Metabolix. The Metabolix route to BDO is via polyhydroxyalkanoate.

The number of companies investigating different process routes in itself highlights the potential opportunities for competing technologies.

Nexant ChemSystems puts global demand for (petrochemically derived) BDO at 1.4m tones in 2010. BDO growth will average 4.8% a year until 2015, it adds.

Read Doris de Guzman's ICIS Green Chemicals blog

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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