Green Chemicals: Virent to market bio-PX, biogasoline in 2014

27 June 2011 00:22  [Source: ICB]

The company seeks commercial production of bio-based paraxylene and gasoline by 2014

US renewable-based technology firm Virent expects to have a commercial biorefinery plant under construction, if not fully operational, by 2014 that will produce biobased paraxylene (PX) trademarked BioFormPX and biobased gasoline trademarked BioFormate using plant sugar for feedstock.

The location of the biorefinery could be anywhere in the world depending on feedstock availability and economics, while plant capacity will depend on future partner needs, said Virent CEO Lee Edwards. He noted that strategic partnerships are needed for commercial deployment of both bio-PX and biogasoline, given the capital and large volumes needed for commercialization.

"Our deployment strategy is very similar to our development strategy where we want to be an active participant. In this case, we want to be involved in the manufacturing and supply part of the value chain," Edwards said.

Virent's patented processing technology under the trademark BioForming uses catalytic chemical reaction instead of fermentation to convert plant sugar-based compounds into non-oxygenated hydrocarbon mixtures. The process has the flexibility to use different sugar sources such as cane and corn, as well as cellulosic-based materials such as wood chips, switchgrass, corn stover and bagasse.

"The fact that we can make the same molecule from various renewable feedstocks means we can use the same logistics, storage, pipelines and distribution for materials coming from our biorefinery," said Edwards. "We also want to minimize capital costs by looking at opportunities to integrate our biorefinery within existing facilities and existing infrastructure."

Existing infrastructure could include corn wet mills, sugarcane mills or a petrochemical plant.

BioFormPX is the first chemical the company is focusing on, said Kieran Furlong, Virent's commercial manager for biochemicals.

Virent announced on June 6 that it successfully produced plant sugar-based PX at its facility in Madison, Wisconsin, US after less than a year in development. Its BioFormPX is a drop-in for petroleum-based PX, said Furlong. "We are currently in negotiations with potential partners for further development and commercialization of BioFormPX," he said. "2014 commercialization is a very aggressive timeline but we, as well as a large external engineering firm that we consulted, think it's feasible."

100% bio-based PET would be possible with bio-PX
Pic: Virent
Paraxylene is a direct precursor to purified terephthalic acid (PTA) manufacture, which accounts for 70% of polyethylene terephthalate's (PET) monomer component. The other 30% of PET is from monoethylene glycol (MEG), where renewable-based alternatives are already commercially available, said Furlong.

Virent's bio-PX technology will allow companies to produce 100% renewable-based PET resins for use in bottling and other packaging, he said.

Multinational beverage companies such as US-based Coca-Cola and PepsiCo already announced their intent to use 100% bio-based PET in the future (see ICIS Chemical Business story on April 25, 2011, page 22).

Edwards noted that major branded consumer goods and beverage companies would rather use bio-based PET than other bioplastics because of existing PET infrastructure as well as PET's beneficial properties in packaging such as strength, impermeability and clarity.

"Companies that will be able to use 100% renewable-based PET in their packaging will gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace," said Edwards.

"We are talking to a number of companies within the PET bottle resin supply chain - from petroleum refiners to branded consumer goods companies for potential partnerships." he added.

Virent first plans to produce pilot-scale quantities of bio-PX with partners that will ultimately go into demonstration quantities of PET bottle resin to make the 100% biobased PET demo bottles.

"Most probably, this will be done on our 10,000 gal/year demonstration plant in Madison," said Furlong. Virent plans to start demonstration campaigns late this year or early 2012. "If our partners will just be looking to produce sufficient resins to do test runs on PET bottles and show that 100% bio-PET is feasible, that could run in the tens-of-kilograms range," said Furlong.

"If they want to go to pre-commercial launch of products - we're talking tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of bottles translating to a couple of tonnes of bio-PX materials - we can also do that in our demo facility plus some additional infrastructure that we would have to put in place," Furlong added.

Commercial-scale bio-PX capacity could be at a typical range of around 100,000 tonnes/year to as high as 300,000 tonnes/year, said Furlong. Virent runs a 10,000 gal/year demonstration facility in Madison that can produce both biochemicals and biofuels.

"The unit is used for generating product and product samples for further validation and certification of both gasoline and paraxylene," said Edwards.

Virent envisions capacity of around 20m gal/year or larger for commercial deployment of its BioFormate gasoline - also to be done with future partners.

The company is collaborating with Anglo-Dutch oil firm Shell, US agribusiness firm Cargill, and Japanese car manufacturer Honda in the demonstration phase of the biogasoline. Virent also expanded its biofuel collaboration with Shell last year to include development of sugar-based diesel and jet fuel.

"We just finished a series of activities with Shell to ensure the quality and viability of our biogasoline for on-road usage.

"We've been using our 10,000 gal/year demo facility to generate fuel that Shell has then blended for its Ferrari Formula 1 racing team, which is an ongoing activity for the company," noted Edwards.

In early June, Virent also announced the successful laboratory-scale production of its gasoline produced from corn stover and pine forest residuals under collaboration with the US Department of Energy's (DOE) National Advanced Biofuels Consortium (NABC). "We've been able to provide samples to the NABC program and been able to validate product quality on the conversion process. This is still, however, in development stages," said Edwards.

Virent expects all products from the 2014 biorefinery to be cost-competitive with gasoline and paraxylene prices based on current and historic prices of crude oil and commercially-available plant sugars. "We expect the crude oil price to continue to rise while increased development and productivity gains in sugar and biomass willreduce their overall costs in the future," Edwards added.

By: Doris de Guzman
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