Bioplastics projects set to prosper

23 June 2011 17:32  [Source: ICB]

The recession has been a wake-up call for chemical producers to push bioplastics development, resulting in a more positive outlook

Andy Brice/London

With the price of oil and petrochemicals soaring, bioplastics have become an increasingly viable proposition. As a result, the next decade will see a fundamental shift in global polymer production, with a group of new bio-based capacities being brought on stream.

New forecasts from industry association European Bioplastics suggest that global bioplastics output will breach the 1m tonne/year mark this year, with production to more than double from 2010-2015. The study shows that bioplastics will total 1.7m tonnes/year within the next four years, up from around 700,000 tonnes/year in 2010.

Central to this rapid growth is the myriad of applications that are using bioplastics rather than conventional petroleum-based polymers.

European Bioplastics says life-cycle analyses show that bioplastics can reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 30-70% compared with conventional plastics.

"Bioplastics continue to be an exciting area of growth for the plastics industry," says Melissa Hockstad, vice-president, science, technology and regulatory affairs for plastic trade association SPI. "Although bioplastics occupy less than 1% of total plastics global usage, bioplastics continue to gain market strength."

Total polymer consumption in Western Europe alone is about 50m tonnes/year. According to the Netherlands' University of Utrecht, bioplastics potentially could substitute as much as 42m tonnes/year of this total.

"Throughout the recession, people have generally become more aware of sustainability as an issue, so that has been a key driver," adds Brian Balmer, industry principal at global business research and consulting company Frost & Sullivan. Balmer adds that a throwaway culture has been compounded by high oil costs and rising food and commodity chemical prices.

Although the bioplastics industry is growing at about 20% globally each year, Balmer says the market still represents only 0.1% of the entire plastics sector, which means its market potential is vast. Balmer adds that even growth of 20% is perfectly sustainable for several years.

Biopolymers production capacity 2010 vs 2015


The sector is indeed changing rapidly, says Jim Lunt, managing director of US consulting firm Jim Lunt & Associates: "The bioplastics market is growing fast, and there is a lot of activity to make conventional monomer building blocks from renewable resources for the production of polymers. There's going to be a leap in global capacity by 2020, mainly because you don't need to build a completely new plant, but only a fermentation unit or a catalytic cracking unit."

Specifically, he says, there has been an expansion in demand primarily from compostables to durable bioplastics, which Lunt expects to continue in the years ahead. The former are commonly applied in single-use applications such as disposable bags or plastic cups, and cannot meet the high-performance demands of many automotive applications, electronics and household goods. "This is a natural progression because of better economics and pricing, and because of the lack of a composting infrastructure. The performance of compostables, in general, is also inferior to durables."

Statistics from European Bioplastics suggest that durables will account for almost 40% of bioplastics this year, compared with around 12% in 2010.

Despite the negative impact of the global economic downturn on spending and investment, the bioplastics sector is full of optimism.

"The companies developing these technologies have continued to invest in research and development, but we have seen a massive drop-off from the venture capitalists and private equity firms," added Balmer.

The volume of investments and spending fell in 2009 by as much as 25-50% from the year before, he said. There was, however, a marked improvement in 2010, with interest starting to pick up in the market.

This has continued so far in 2011 with several notable investments, including the initial public offering of US-based renewable chemical and biofuel company Gevo. Global renewable chemistry company BioAmber also raised $45m (€30m) to help commercialize its biosuccinic acid and modified polybutylene succinate and build a large-scale plant in North America.

Although Europe is the largest market for bioplastics, most of the new production facilities will be built in other regions, notably Asia and South America. Both interest and investment are picking up, with numerous projects announced over the past year. Some suggest Thailand could become a hub for the bioplastics industry in the coming years.

The map, below, shows some of the latest bioplastic projects.


Last December, Myriant Technologies announced plans to start construction of the world's largest bio-based succinic acid plant in early 2011. The plant is being built at the Port of Lake Providence, Louisiana, and will be operational in 2012, producing up to 30m lbs/year (13,612 tonnes/year) of succinic acid.

US-based BioAmber is finalizing its plans for a 20,000 tonne/year plant in the US. Construction is expected to start this year, with commissioning taking place in the first half of 2013. The facility will initially produce succinic acid, but future plans may include the capability to produce butanediol (BDO), tetrahydrofuran (THF), gamma-butyrolactone and succinate esters on the site.

DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products - a joint venture between DuPont and Tate & Lyle - announced plans to expand its Tennessee facility to increase production of bio-based 1,3 propanediol by 35%. The expansion was expected to be complete by the second quarter of 2011.


Having already started up a 200,000 tonne/year green polyethylene (PE) plant in 2010, Brazilian chemical producer Braskem is considering another plant in the country. The facility will use ethanol from sugarcane and have a capacity of around 900m lb/year (408,000 tonnes/year). It should be completed by late 2014 to early 2015.


US-based bioplastics producer NatureWorks is to build a polylactic acid (PLA) plant in either Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore. This will be the company's second world-scale plant, with a capacity comparable to its 140,000 tonnes/year facility in Nebraska, US. The new plant could come on line in 2015, according to NatureWorks.

Netherlands-based specialty chemical producer Purac expects to start up its 75,000 tonne/year lactide plant in Rayong, Thailand, in the second half of 2011. The €45m ($59m) plant will produce monomers for bioplastics.

France's Arkema and South Korea's CJ CheilJedang have agreed to build a bio-methionine and thiochemicals facility in Malaysia or Thailand. The partners will split the $400m investment equally, which will include the world's first worldscale methyl mercaptan integrated bio-methionine plant. The 80,000 tonne/year bio-methionine plant and thiochemicals facility are expected to come on stream by the end of 2013.


US-based Cereplast is planning to build a 100,000 tonne/year bioplastics plant in Assisi, Italy. The phased installation will initially see 50,000 tonnes/year manufactured in late 2012, with an additional 50,000 tonnes/year in mid-2013 under the second phase, based on market demand. Cereplast said it will be funded through local and regional financing with Italian institutions, and should also receive subsidies from various state and local agencies. The initial investment is estimated to be about €10m-12m ($15m-18m).

Dutch specialty chemical firm DSM is building a commercial scale, bio-based succinic acid plant in Cassano Spinola, Italy, in partnership with French company Roquette Freres. The plant will be Europe's biggest bio-based succinic acid plant, with a capacity of around 10,000 tonnes/year, and is scheduled to come on stream in the second half of 2012.

US-based Genomatica will build a biomass-based butanediol (BDO) demonstration facility in Rivalta, Italy, which is expected to start in 2012. Genomatica is collaborating with Chemtex, a subsidiary of Italian chemical company Gruppo Mossi & Ghisolfi, to develop a complete process for the second generation bio-BDO.

Novamont has said that it is to expand its biopolymer production capacity with the construction of a new €50m ($72.5m) monomer plant in Italy. Its biopolymer production capacity of 80,000 tonnes/year will rise to 150,000 tonnes/year by the end of 2012 or in early 2013. Last December, the firm said construction would start early this year.


Germany's Uhde Inventa-Fischer started up a 500 tonne/year polylactic acid (PLA) pilot plant in Guben in December 2010. The company said the facility was an important step for a scale-up to a 60,000 tonne/year plant and would help to demonstrate the technology and produce samples of around one tonne. It aimed to start designing the plant at the end of the first quarter 2011.

German major BASF has started operations at its expanded 74,000 tonne/year biodegradable plastics plant at Ludwigshafen. Prior to the plant's expansion, production capacity for its Ecoflex product was 14,000 tonnes/year. BASF said it also would be ramping up compounding capacity for its Ecovio brand of biodegradable plastics, a derivative of Ecoflex.

By: Andy Brice
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