Green Chemicals: Biomass chemicals to be competitive in 10–15 years

02 April 2012 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Petrochemicals and polymers produced from biomass will be fully cost-competitive with petroleum-based products on a global basis in 10-15 years, according to José Carlos Grubisich, former CEO of Brazil-based ethanol producer ETH Bioenergia.

Grubisich, who left ETH Bioenergia at the end of February to become CEO of Brazil-based pulp and paper company Eldorado, spoke at the sixth EBDQUIM conference hosted by Associquim (Brazilian Association of Chemical and Petrochemical Distributors) and Sincoquim (Sao Paulo state chemical association).

Sugarcane, Rex Features

 © Rex Features

A wealth of sugarcane has boosted Brazil's bio-based PE

Commercial-scale biorefineries that can cost-competitively produce chemicals from cellulose and agricultural waste will take time, said Grubisich.

"We are in a phase of transition in chemicals in terms of technologies. We must prepare for the age of carbohydrates," he added. In Brazil, Grubisich said, sugarcane and eucalyptus trees will provide the feedstocks of the future.

"The application of biotechnology through genetic engineering of sugarcane and eucalyptus will result in higher productivity and lower costs," he said. "This will start happening in the next few years."

Companies such as US firms Amyris, Solazyme and LS9 are already leading the way in developing fermentation processes for biomass-based chemicals. Companies such as US-based Mascoma, KiOR and Codexis are developing technologies to produce chemicals and naphtha from biomass, Grubisich noted.

While Brazil is producing bio-based polyethylene (PE) on a commercial basis, he pointed out that this is because of the nation's prolific production of sugarcane, which is made into ethanol and then into ethylene and PE.

"This cannot be extrapolated to other regions. However, as oil prices increase over time and new technologies are developed to make biomass more productive, this will be the start of a new reality," said Grubisich.

FOCUS ON SOUTH AMERICA

Brazil will produce half of the world's bio-based chemicals by 2020, Pedro Fortes, operations director at Eastman Brazil, said at the EBDQUIM conference.

"By 2020, green chemicals will be 10% of the volume of all chemical products, and 50% of this will be produced in Brazil," he noted.

Brazil's strength is in the production of bio-based chemical feedstocks sugarcane and wood pulp, as well as a growing opportunity to raise the production of vegetable oils. Eastman said it will explore applying newly acquired technology to produce bio-butanol for its Scandiflex plasticizers business in Brazil.

Eastman bought Brazil-based Scandiflex on September 1, 2011. The company had annual sales of around $54m (€41m) in 2010.

In 2011, Eastman acquired US renewable chemicals firm TetraVitae Bioscience, which is developing bio-butanol and bio-acetone.

The company could eventually use bio-butanol produced from its TetraVitae technology as a feedstock for Scandiflex plasticizers in Brazil, noted Fortes. "We will seek to use renewable resources to produce differentiated, sustainable products."

South America's manufacturing capacity for bio-based materials and chemicals was virtually nil in 2006, but has risen to 211,000 tonnes today, led by Brazil, according to US market research firm Lux Research. By 2016, capacity should increase at least 317% to 880,500 tonnes, the firm said.

Bio-based chemical projects in Brazil include Braskem's 200,000 tonne/year PE plant and its planned 30,000-50,000 tonne/year polypropylene (PP) plant.

Other planned projects in Brazil include the Dow/Mitsui joint venture to produce sugarcane-based PE; Solvay's planned 20,000 tonne/year polyvinyl chloride (PVC) facility using sugarcane-based ethylene as part of its feedstock, and the Cobalt Technologies/Rhodia partnership on a 500 tonne/year n-butanol facility.

  • Additional reporting by Doris de Guzman in New York

By: Joseph Chang
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