ICIS Innovation Awards 2012: Carbon monoxide process lowers acrylic acid costs

19 October 2012 09:45  [Source: ICB]

Novomer, winner of the Best Innovation by an SME category, has widened its vision for the proprietary technology, which won last year's Innovation with Best Environmental Benefit category


Superabsorbent polymer (SAP) made with Novomer's catalyst has the same performance as SAP made using the traditional propylene-based route

Copyright: Novomer

A new proprietary catalyst system capable of producing a wide range of intermediates from carbon monoxide and ethylene oxide has the potential to transform the chemical industry, claims Novomer, which describes itself as an "emerging sustainable chemistry company".

These chemicals, namely acrylic acid (AA), acrylate esters, butanediol (BDO), tetrahydrofuran (THF), polypropiolactone (PPL) and succinic acid, have a global market value in excess of $20bn (€15bn), according to the Ithaca, New York-based company and can be produced at a disruptively lower cost and with a reduced environmental footprint.

PPL is a new polymer with good material properties and biodegradability that also offers a means of shipping AA. PPL, although stable across a wide range of temperatures, degrades quickly to glacial AA above 200oC.

Mike Slowik, director of chemicals at Novomer, comments: "Our ultimate vision for this technology is that low molecular weight PPL could be shipped globally and converted to AA or acrylate esters upon demand."

The ability to ship PPL and convert it to glacial AA offers a much better economical and sustainable method of sourcing AA where it is needed, Slowik says. AA's primary demand is in superabsorbent polymers (SAP) which goes into diapers and growth is being driven by markets in India and China where demand is rising at 6-7%/year.

Slowik says that PPL has been studied since the 1980s but, to date, no one has been able to develop an economically feasible process. The thermoplastic has similar properties to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but with significantly higher barrier properties.

Novomer's proprietary system is based on homogeneous catalyst technology that was originally discovered at New York-based Cornell University by Geoffrey Coates, Novomer's co-founder and chairman of its scientific advisory board. The significance of the process is that it enables the use of a low-cost monomer, in this case carbon monoxide (CO), which is combined with ethylene oxide (EO) to make propriolactone.

Novomer says that the use of inexpensive raw materials, such as CO and ethane-derived EO, and the catalyst's selectivity, which is in excess of 99%, means that the cost of the process is potentially 40% lower than current available technologies.

In addition, the process is expected to have a lower carbon and energy footprint because it operates at moderate temperatures, notably between 30-50oC.This compares with an operating temperature of over 250oC in the existing AA production process.

Novomer has raised about $30m so far in venture capital funding which it is using to part-finance construction of a continuous pilot-scale process plant. The company has also applied for a US Department of Energy grant to boost its finances.

The development facility is being built in Rochester, New York, near the company's research and development laboratory in Ithaca, and completion is expected in the next 12-18 months. Construction of a commercial-scale plant, which will produce AA via PPL, is expected to begin in 2015. Capacity will depend on the outcome of the pilot trials.

Novomer is currently looking for a commercial partner to help co-develop the technology. Slowik says he has received a lot of interest worldwide and expects Novomer to make a selection at the end of 2012 or in early 2013.

By: Elaine Burridge
+44 20 8652 3214

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