Corrected: INSIGHT: Heralding bio-based manufacturing at scale

10 January 2012 18:06  [Source: ICIS news]

Correction: In the ICIS news story headlined "INSIGHT: Heralding bio-based manufacturing at scale" dated 10 January 2012, please read in the fifth paragraph ...will climb 140%... instead of ...will climb 14%.... A corrected story, also removing repetition in the eighth paragraph, follows.

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--Moving from pilot to commercial scale, some bio-based petrochemicals are starting to make a clearer impression on the consumer. Soon, they will start to make an impression on the industry.

Bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is possibly the most visible to the public now. It will become more widely used in a certain soft drinks manufacturer’s plastic PlantBottle.

But bio-based isoprene and the rubber precursor isobutene are expected to make inroads into the tyre and butyl rubber markets. Other polymers derived from renewable resources, and traditional petrochemical intermediates made from biomass, will become commonplace within the industry’s structure.

“Bio-based chemicals and materials have launched from labs to demo to scale in droves in the last seven years, now reaching a technical tipping point where they are mature enough to measure in terms of manufacturing capacity,” analysts at US-based Lux Research said in December.

“Total global capacity for 17 major bio-based materials doubled from 1.9m tonnes in 2006 to 3.8m tonnes today; by 2016, it will climb 140% to reach 9.2m tonnes,” they added.

“While these materials have barely had time to make a tiny dent in the $3 trillion [$3,000bn] petrochemicals market, their growth is impressive: from 2011 to 2016, global potential revenue from bio-based materials and chemicals will double, from $9.1bn to $19.7bn.”

The technologies for converting biomass into a wide range of compounds have matured to the extent that the bio-materials are competitive in terms of cost and performance, Lux Research suggests. Bio-producers have grappled with issues such as quality, consistency and cost, but are now looking more towards business issues such as partnerships up and down the supply chain.

The technical issues having been tackled, companies are prepared to start manufacturing at scale.

"The industry no longer offers daredevil innovators grand challenges that attract risk capital and venture finance," the firm said in a month-earlier report. "Its challenges today lie in day-to-day dilemmas of running a mature, mundane business, and the payoffs are more predictable." In other words, the business of bio-petchems “is now highly relevant to corporations, regulators, and consumers".

That relevance to the major polyolefins markets and to PET could be immense.

All grades of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and even polyvinyl chloride (PVC) could be made following bio-based routes, consultants Nexant ChemSystems suggest in the prospectus to a new study.

Finished bio-polymer could potentially be indistinguishable from the best-performing conventional polymers, they add. Similarly, bio-based PET can be made from bio-based purified terephthalic acid (PTA), which is made from bio-paraxylene (PX) via a process using renewable feedstocks. Bio-based monoethylene glycol (MEG), the other PET component, can be produced conventionally from ethylene oxide (EO) using bio-ethylene.

While the key feedstocks for conventional petrochemical processes are natural gas and crude oil, bio-processors are using sugars, starches and lipids alongside sources of lignocellulose such as wood and corn stover. There are various potential routes to conventional petrochemicals and polymers from unconventional renewable feedstocks.

Nexant says it has noted a “very substantial” increase in serious investments in bio-chemical based opportunities.

“These factors have driven the development of bio-based chemicals technology to the point of practical bio-based chemicals and polymers projects worldwide,” it adds.

Past this point serious interest will be taken in developing feedstock chains and the logistics necessary to produce larger volumes of bio-petrochemicals and polymers. The challenges are immense but the opportunities are significant and increasingly being recognised.

New production locations are emerging that potentially give access to the renewable raw materials that will be needed to feed high-volume production plants.

The feedstock infrastructure, logistics, production and the innovation landscape is beginning, in Lux Research’s words, to “shake out”.

Read Doris de Guzman's Green Chemicals blog for ICIS

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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