News focus: Mitsubishi Chemical expands renewable chemical investments

29 August 2011 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. (MCC) is expanding its product portfolio and feedstock sources with renewable-based options through partnerships and joint ventures this year.

In late April, MCC formed a 50:50 joint venture (JV) called PTT MCC Biochem Company (PMBC) with Thailand-based industrial conglomerate PTT to develop and produce sugar-derived polybutylene succinate, a biodegradable aliphatic polyester with similar properties to polyethylene (PE). Major applications for polybutylene succinate are mulch films, packaging films, bags and flushable hygiene products.

MCC produces and markets polybutylene succinate in its 3,000 tonne/year Japan plant under the trademark GS Pla using petroleum-derived succinic acid and butanediol (BDO) as feedstock. The JV not only aims to establish and develop a polybutylene succinate market worldwide, but also to build a polybutylene succinate production chain using renewable based succinic acid and BDO, said Shigeru Handa, general manager of the Sustainable Resources Business Development department at MCC's petrochemicals R&D division.

PTT MCC Biochem
 PTT MCC Biochem joint venture launched this year in Thailand

An industry source estimates the current polybutylene succinate and derivatives market at 100,000-120,000 tonnes/year. Modified polybutylene succinate polymers such as those being blended with polylactic acid (PLA) or starch are now available in the market.

BIO-BASED CHEMS WANTED

PMBC will build a 20,000 tonne/year bio-polybutylene succinate plant in Rayong, Thailand, which is expected to start in 2015.

"We see increasing demand for GS Pla, and we are even thinking that maybe the 20,000 tonne capacity will be too small," said Handa. "Considering Asia's rich biomass materials, we believe there is a huge potential for biobased chemicals and bioplastics in Asia, and we would like to explore every opportunity here."

PMBC formed a supply partnership in April with US companies BioAmber for biobased succinic acid production in Rayong, and Genomatica for bio-based BDO production. MCC's main interest in biosuccinic acid is its competitiveness as a raw material for its polybutylene succinate business, said Handa.

The bio-polybutylene succinate plant will use 15,000 tonnes/year of biosuccinic acid starting in 2015. The UK's National Centre for Biorenewable Energy, Fuels and Materials estimates current global biosuccinic acid production at 16,000-30,000 tonnes/year. Succinic acid pricing is estimated at $2,0003,000/tonne.

"Biosuccinic acid today is not yet as cost-competitive as petroleum-based succinic acid because of current production of scale," Handa said. "We believe that with the improvements in combined technology of BioAmber and MCC, the growth of biosuccinic acid will provide a scale large enough to be more competitive than petro-based products."

MCC did not disclose PMBC's expected consumption for bio-BDO, nor a timeline for when Genomatica will start producing bio-BDO for its use. "When it comes to bio-BDO, Genomatica has its own plans for the foreseeable future but we prefer to have a facility in Asia," said Handa.

IN THE BIO PIPELINE

Aside from GS Pla, MCC's current bio-based lineup includes an engineering plastic trademarked DURABIO made from sugar-based isosorbide monomers.

MCC produces DURABIO at a 300 tonne/year pilot plant in Kurosaki and plans to scale up to commercial quantities in a couple of years at a plant that will also be located in Japan, said Handa.

He said DURABIO possesses the better transparency of polycarbonate (PC) and the better impact resistance of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). France-based starch derivatives company Roquette supplies the isosorbide feedstock.

MCC offered two grades of DURABIO in the first quarter this year for customer testing. The bioresins are used for optical/transparent applications.

"We were looking for alternative monomer to PC mostly to obtain a different property than that of the existing PC. What we found was an improved property of PC which happens to be biodegradable at the same time," said Handa.

MCC also has plans to replace some of its basic raw materials such as C3 and C4 with renewable-based alternatives.

"In this case, we will be able to drop in the bio-based basic chemicals into our existing derivatives production processes," said Handa. "We are also seeking possibilities of producing downstream chemicals straight from sugar." He cited as an example MCC's partnership with Genomatica to establish the first bio-BDO plant in Asia.

The main driver for going the biobased route is to reduce costs, noted Handa.

"There is a practical need for bio-based chemicals, especially in Japan, which is importing most of its petroleum-based raw materials," said Handa. "Considering that oil producing countries are now intensively entering the Asian market and that oil price is stuck at a high level, we think that having an alternative source is necessary and that biobased chemicals would provide an opportunity to maintain growth."

MCC parent company Mitsubishi Chemical Holding Corp (MCHC) positioned sustainable resources as one of its six core future businesses under a five-year midterm management plan announced in December 2010.

Under the plan, MCHC also started implementing a concept called KAITEKI, which identifies sustainability, health and comfort as the decision criteria of its corporate activities.

Follow bio-based projects at ICIS plants and projects


By: Doris de Guzman
+1 713 525 2653



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