Japan chemical firms speed up renewable R&D through joint venturess

21 October 2011 11:01  [Source: ICB]

Japanese chemical companies such as Mitsubishi Chemical Company (MCC), Mitsui & Co., Toray Industries and Kuraray among others, are searching upstream in their quest for alternative petrochemical feedstocks and sustainable chemistry through development collaborations with several US renewable chemical firms.

Toyota Prius concept, Rex Features
© Rex Features
The country aims to use more bio-based chemicals
Japan mainly imports its petroleum-based raw materials, so is dependent on the price of oil. Renewable chemicals could give its firms a chance to re-establish their position in the industry, says Shigeru Handa, general manager of the sustainable resource business development department at MCC's petrochemicals research and development (R&D) division.

Another reason that Japanese chemical companies are going towards renewables might be because of the lack of venture capital start-ups in Japan, Handa notes. "Compared to the US, where various ventures are competing for renewable chemicals, Japan does not 'culture' a system for new ventures to come out easily. Instead of new ventures, large corporations have to be directly involved in these new technologies," he says.

Mitsui agrees that the changing chemical feedstock landscape is helping to shape bio-based chemical development - not just bioplastics - in Japan. The country depends heavily on oil-based naphtha for chemical feedstock.

"Because of the light feedstock trend of ethane cracker capacity increases in the Middle East and from shale gas development in the US, operations of naphtha crackers are being affected, and in turn, will affect feedstock supply for certain chemicals. Green chemicals will have to back up a foreseen shortage of C3-C6 carbon chains," says Naoki Enatsu, general manager, green chemicals business department at Mitsui's specialty chemicals division.

The company notes that it has been trying to move from fossil resources to biomass ones since the early 1990s. MCC also says it has been engaged in the development of bioplastics and biochemicals for more than 20 years.

The trend towards bio-based chemicals has never been stronger for Japanese companies than now, says Andrew Soare, industry analyst for US-based consulting firm Lux Research. Japanese chemical companies have very strong market pull, he says, and are in a unique position to bring new materials to commercial scale.

"These companies in most cases are engaging with non-Japanese firms to access foreign innovation and also foreign feedstocks. Similarly, the developing bio-based chemical companies need market pull to enter the growing Asian chemical market and often rely on partnerships with Japanese chemical companies to access these markets," Soare says.


This year alone saw several Japanese joint venture and collaboration deals within the renewable chemicals sector.

MCC has partnered with Thailand-based petrochemical firm PTT Group to form the 50:50 joint venture PTT MCC Biochem Company, which aims to produce the bioplastic polybutylene succinate trademarked GSPla in a 20,000 tonne/year facility that will be built in Map Ta Phut, Thailand. The sugar-derived biodegradable aliphatic polyester is said to have similar properties to polyethylene (PE).

PTT MCC also has partnered with US-based biosuccinic acid producer BioAmber for succinic acid feedstock supply to the plant. The facility is expected to start in 2014.

This year, MCC also announced a memorandum of understanding with US-based renewable chemicals firm Genomatica to study potential areas of collaboration involving bio 1,4 butanediol.

MCC's renewable chemicals strategy, according to Handa, is to make bio-based chemicals with the exact same properties as petroleum-based ones. MCC has plans to replace some of its basic raw materials such as C3 and C4 with renewable-based alternatives. "From this point of view, we will not find challenges in the supply chain since it should be the same as what we are using now," he adds.

Last year, Mitsui also teamed up with BioAmber to distribute bio-succinic acid and derivatives exclusively in Asia. One of Mitsui's biggest bio-based chemical projects announced this year is its 50:50 joint venture partnership with US-based Dow Chemical for the production of PE that will be back-integrated to a planned sugarcane ethanol facility in Brazil.

Mazda Hydrogen powered car, Mazda
 © Mazda
Hybrid cars are getting a green chemicals makeover
Under the deal, Mitsui would become an equity interest partner in Santa Vitoria Acucar e Alcool, Dow's sugarcane growing operations in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Mitsui's Enatsu expects to build a 350,000 tonne/year bio-PE plant in Brazil through the venture.

"Location of green chemicals commercialization is very important and should be situated where biomass feedstock is available with competitive conditions such as in North America, Brazil and Asia," says Enatsu. "We are aiming to invest in other building blocks in North America and Asia, which we expect to announce within the next month or so."

Japan's Toray and Kuraray also have formed partnerships with US-based bio-butanol producer Gevo and renewable chemicals firm Amyris, respectively.

In June, Toray and Gevo announced that they were able to produce, in laboratory scale, 100% bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) using Gevo's isobutanol-based paraxylene (PX). The companies are moving from lab-scale proof-of-concept to establishing commercial-scale operations for bio-PX.

In an investor meeting held in September, Gevo said it expects the bio-PX project to go to pilot stage in 2012 and is targeting commercialization by 2014.

In August, Kuraray and Amyris announced their partnership to develop polymers using Amyris' farnesene-based building block Biofene. Farnesene is a sesquiterpene molecule that is part of a larger class of chemical compounds called terpenes. Amyris' farnesene is derived from sugar.

They plan to use Biofene to replace petrochemicals such as butadiene (BD) and isoprene in the production of certain high-performing polymers. On successful completion of the development program for the first polymer, they expect to enter a supply deal for Kuraray's exclusive use of Biofene in the manufacturing of the targeted polymer products.

Japan's Toyota Tsusho is expecting to start commercial operation of the world's first bio-PET integrated supply chain that will include procuring bioethanol, the production of bio-monoethylene glycol (MEG) and tolling and marketing of bio-PET later this year. Toyota Tsusho has established Greencol Taiwan in a 50:50 joint venture with Taiwan-based China Man-Made Fiber Corp. (CMFC) for a 100,000 tonne/year bio-MEG production plant located in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Toyota Tshusho will handle all the bio-MEG from Greencol Taiwan and supply the intermediate chemical to PET manufacturers on a tolling basis. The bio-PET produced is expected to be sold to end-users in Japan, Europe and the US.


Mitsui and MCC agree that Japanese consumers are at the forefront when it comes to preference for more eco-friendly products.

"Attention is focused on biomass plastics and biodegradable plastics, which have smaller environmental impact than conventional plastics," says Enatsu. "In Japan, biodegradable plastics are being used in mulch film and seedling pots, in farming, and in bags for collecting kitchen waste bound for composting facilities."

Japanese auto firms such as Toyota and Mazda have been incorporating the green concept into purchasing strategies. MCC notes Toyota was among the first large companies worldwide to commit to using bioplastics.

In August, Toyota announced that it has adopted DuPont's Sorona EP thermoplastic resin in the instrument panel air-conditioning system outlet for its new hybrid vehicle Prius Alpha, which was launched in May in Japan. The polymers contain between 20% and 37% sugar-based materials by weight.

Since late 2009, Toyota has also been using DuPont's Zytel RS renewably-sourced nylon resin incorporated in radiator end tanks for its Camry model. The resin was developed for this use in collaboration with Japanese automotive system supplier Denso.

Mazda says it has been using biofabric for seat covers and door trim in its Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid models, which were introduced in 2007, using polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic developed in collaboration with Japanese polymers firm Teijin.

PLA is still the dominant bioplastic in Japan, occupying 70-80% of the Japanese bioplastics market, notes Jim Lunt, managing director for US consulting firm Jim Lunt and Associates. Other bioplastic products commercialized in Japan include starch-based blends and polybutylene succinate.

The Japanese government has a goal of having 20% of all plastics consumed in the country renewably sourced by 2020, says Lunt. "Japanese consumers, in my opinion, will pay more than [those in] other geographies if they believe in the environmental benefits and can help Japan meet the Kyoto Protocol requirement of reducing greenhouse gases."


Teijin intends to develop further applications of its heat-resistant PLA-based bioplastic trademarked BIOFRONT to the electronics and automotive fields. The company also developed plant-derived polycarbonates (PC) for use in automotive, electronics, medical, food and cosmetic packaging applications, as well as partially bio-derived PET fiber ECO CIRCLE that contains roughly 30% sugar-based ethylene glycol. Teijin expects to start full-scale production of its ECO CIRCLE plant fiber in April 2012. "This will be the world's first commercial production of bio-derived PET fiber," says Teijin spokesman Rie Mashiba. "Expected applications range from apparel and car seats/interiors to personal hygiene products, and as a raw material for polyester fiber products."

Teijin says it also has succeeded in producing bio-PET with 100% bio-content.

Aside from MCC's GSPla, Handa also notes the company's bio-based engineering plastic product DURABIO, made from sugar-based isosorbide monomers. MCC started offering the bioplastic this year in locations such as in Japan, US, Europe and Korea. "We started our DURABIO pilot plant last August, and we are receiving extremely good responses from our potential customers about it," says Handa.

He says the main markets for GSPla will be in Europe and US. "These countries have regulations to use compostable products, and GSPla's biodegradable characteristic meets the needs in these markets. Also, it is difficult for Japan to become a major market for GSPla since most of our waste is incinerated," adds Handa.

Despite numerous developments, Lunt estimates bioplastic growth in Japan is behind the US and Europe in terms of consumption.

"Introducing new products into the market typically takes considerably longer than other geographies due to strict regulations," says Lunt. "Bioplastic production in Japan is also challenged by available feedstocks, production economics as well as cultural differences. I think we will see more [joint ventures] and investments by Japanese companies in other parts of Asia but bioplastic manufacturing within Japan will remain limited."

By: Doris de Guzman
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