Green Chemicals: Growing number of chemical firms enter bio-butanol space

05 December 2011 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Bio-based butanol is becoming more alluring to buyers of petroleum-based butanol

There is an increasing number of global chemical companies seeking supplies of bio-butanol as the future worldwide supply of propylene - the main feedstock for petroleum-based butanol - remains uncertain. Propylene price volatility has caused swings in butanol pricing.


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Eastman Chemical, Rhodia, LANXESS, Sasol, Toray, and Synthos are just some of the companies that have jumped on the bio-butanol wagon.

In November, US-based Eastman, through its subsidiary Eastman Renewable Materials, bought TetraVitae Bioscience, which is based in Chicago, US, for an undisclosed sum.

TetraVitae has been developing fermentation-based normal butanol (n-butanol) and co-product acetone using corn and sugar for feedstock. Eastman said TetraVitae has made impressive progress in developing a proprietary route to bio-based n-butanol and bio-acetone using a patented fermentation organism.

"We expect these products to be valuable alternatives to traditional n-butanol and acetone for our customers," said Jeff Needham, sustainable materials development director at Eastman. "We are positioned well as a world leader in oxo chemicals including n-butanol, and have the technical and marketing capabilities needed to successfully introduce bio-butanol and derivative products."

Eastman has acquired TetraVitae's assets including a research and development (R&D) laboratory in Champaign, Illinois. Associated personnel will be integrated into Eastman Renewable Materials, said Needham.

"Detailed plans for our bio-butanol goals are not being shared at this time, but we will likely include eventual commercialization of TetraVitae's patented bio-catalysis process for bio-based n-butanol and bio-acetone," he added. Needham said renewable, bio-based products were a key element of Eastman's sustainability strategies.

 n-butanol prices slide
France-based chemical firm Rhodia, which has been owned by Belgium-based chemical company Solvay since September 2011, announced in October that it has formed a deal with California-based bio-butanol developer Cobalt Technologies to develop and commercialize n-butanol made from sugarcane bagasse throughout Latin America.

Under the deal, the parties will initially develop options for deploying Cobalt's technology at a pilot plant co-located or near a sugar mill in Brazil. The location of the pilot plant is still being studied, said Adrianne Pedrosa, director of strategic marketing at Rhodia's Coatis business unit.

"The decision will be announced in the next six months, as soon as the technical and financial evaluation of the Cobalt technology using local raw material has been finished," said Pedrosa. "Once past this phase, within six months, installation of a demonstration plant will begin in Brazil."

Following the demonstration plant, the companies intend to construct multiple biorefineries co-located with sugar mills, first in Brazil, and then in other Latin American countries.

"Our intention initially is to supply demand on the Latin American market, currently estimated at 80,000 tonnes/year," said Pedrosa. "Butanol demand is forecasted to reach around 200,000 tonnes in 2015, when the projects announced by other companies in the resin industrial chain that use products made of butanol are up and running."

Rhodia's project with Cobalt aims to initially develop the bio-based n-butanol market in Latin America, although the possibility of implementation in other regions has not been discarded, added Pedrosa.

"The development of [the] bio-based n-butanol market is strategic to Rhodia's business growth ambitions in the region bearing in mind that the company now uses imported butanol to produce solvents such as butyl acetate. Rhodia plans to replace this imported butanol will bio-based n-butanol," said Pedrosa.

Cobalt Technologies CFO Steve Shevick said its product price range could be between 40-60% below petroleum-based n-butanol depending on the feedstock. The firm's offering is the production of low-cost n-butanol using cellulosic biomass as feedstock.

"Our biocatalyst is uniquely suited for the use of cellulosic feedstock, and our process has been developed to deliver high yields with such feedstock. We believe it will be highly profitable compared to using corn or sugar as a feedstock," said Shevick.

In April, Cobalt partnered Georgia, US-based biorefinery technology firm American Process Inc. (API) to build a commercial-scale cellulosic biorefinery in Alpena, Michigan, US, that will produce 470,000 gal/year of bio-based n-butanol by late 2012. The Alpena biorefinery is funded in part by an $18m (€13.4m) US Department of Energy grant and a $4m grant from the State of Michigan.

"The Alpena biorefinery will be more focused on demonstrating our technology at an industrial scale," said Shevick. "Butanol in the chemical space is a lot different than butanol for fuel. We are working with various end-users for them to sample our products or have them certified in different market segments. Instead of trying to sell bio-butanol into the fuels market for $2.50/gal, why not sell it into the chemical market for $5-6/gal?"

Global Butanol Demand

Cobalt estimates the global market for n-butanol derivatives at $50bn. Besides direct use as a fuel additive, butanol can be converted into many hydrocarbon fuels, specialty blendstocks and chemical intermediates. Butanol can be dehydrated to produce butenes for use in the production of plastics, fibers, rubber, and other polymers.

US consulting firm Nexant estimates the global butanol market at $5.9bn in 2011 and expects it to reach $9.2bn in 2015. More than 70% of n-butanol's cash cost is related to propylene pricing - hence the attractiveness of alternative feedstock sourcing.

Other bio-based n-butanol developers include China-based Cathay Industrial Biotech, France-based METabolic Explorer, UK-based Green Biologics and China-based Jilin Jian New Energy Group. On the bio-isobutanol front, developers include US-based Gevo and Butamax, France-based Global Bioenergies, and Swiss firm Butalco.

Gevo has been busy working with chemical firms such as Germany-based LANXESS on isobutanol-based isobutene; Japan-based Toray Industries on isobutanol-derived paraxylene; and South Africa-based Sasol on the use of bio-isobutanol for solvent applications. Global Bioenergies is working with Poland-based rubber manufacturer Synthos on bio-based butadiene made from bio-isobutanol.

By: Doris de Guzman
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