Japan: Bio-based materials develop on a wide front

26 October 2012 08:48  [Source: ICB]

Japanese chemical companies are focusing on the production of sustainable bio-based commodities in order to improve their environmental footprint


Chemical companies in Japan are joining the move towards plant-based feedstocks

Copyright: RexFeatures

US start-ups continue to make headlines with the development of technology platforms for bio-based chemicals, often with the support of major chemical producers. But Japan's leading chemical concerns are making their own strides towards sustainable chemistry. And as often as not they too are joining forces with Western technology providers.

The goal is to allow a shift away from oil and gas feedstocks for petrochemical intermediates, towards the use of renewable feedstocks, such as crop-derived sugars and celluloses. Big brand names in the consumer goods, food and automotive sectors are providing a stimulus for development as they seek "greener", more sustainable products with a strong marketing message.

But the chemical producers are also driving the move, as they seek a lower environment footprint and alternatives to increasingly expensive and volatile petrochemical feedstocks.

The range of bio-based intermediates is steadily expanding, but leading the way are bio-ethylene propylene and their polymer derivatives, bio-acrylic and adipic acids, and bio-butadiene and paraxylene. Newer bio-materials, such as bio-succinic acid and farnesene, are also attracting a lot of attention.

Japanese companies active in this area include Mitsubishi Chemical and its subsidiary Mitsubishi Rayon, Toray Industries, Teijin, Mitsui & Co, Ajinomoto, Sojitz, Kuraray and Showa Denko.

Late last year, Toray announced that it has produced lab-scale samples of fully bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) fibre, using bio-paraxylene (bio-PX) produced in the US by Gevo and commercially available renewable monoethylene glycol (MEG).

The US technology company uses biomass-derived bio-isobutanol to make the bio-PX, using conventional chemical processes, which Toray subsequently converts to terephthalic acid.

The success of the trial, says Toray, "is proof that polyester fibre can be industrially produced from fully renewable biomass feedstock alone". Toray is already active in the bio-polymer sector through its polylactic acid activities. In June this year, Toray signed an offtake agreement with Gevo for bio-PX, to enable it to move to pilot-scale production of bio-PET and polyester fibre and to offer samples to business partners in 2013.


Ajinomoto is developing a bio-based synthetic rubber with tyre-maker Bridgestone

Copyright: Bridgestone

In another initiative, Toray is working with Ajinomoto to develop and commercialise a bio-based polyamide, based on 1,5-pentanediamine (1,5-PD), which it will produce from the amino acid lysine, itself derived from plant materials by Ajinomoto using fermentation technology. The 1,5-PD is reacted with dicarboxylic acid to produce the bio-poly amide 56, which Toray says "is not only sustainable because it is plant based, but shows promise for highly comfortable clothing".

Ajinomoto is also using its biotechnology fermentation expertise in a collaboration with tyre-maker Bridgestone. The two companies are developing bio-isoprene-based high-cis polyisoprene synthetic rubber for use in tyres. In May they confirmed that they have successfully produced samples of the rubber. Bridgestone noted that the bio-based rubber could be "one of the means of diversifying raw material sources for tyres and a major catalyst for achieving the group's goal of a sustainable society". A decision on the potential for commercialisation will be taken next year, says Ajinomoto.

Kuraray has enhanced its renewable offering through a partnership with US-headquartered Amyris to replace petroleum-based feedstocks for polymer production. The renewable hydrocarbon building block, Biofene (farnesene), will replace conventional raw materials such as butadiene (BD) and isoprene.

Japanese chemical trader and producer Sojitz is also making moves into bio-based materials. Late last year it signed an agreement with US-based Myriant to market its bio-based succinic acid in Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Target sectors are plasticisers, polymers, urethanes and solvents.

As part of the agreement, Sojitz will build a commercial-scale, 150m lb/year (68,000 tonne/year) plant that will produce derivatives of bio-based succinic acid supplied by Myriant. The facility should be operational by 2015. Sojitz says that: "By gaining access to Myriant's bio-based succinic acid, we will be in a position to grow our business of green chemical derivatives.

This year, Sojitz signed an agreement with Brazil's Braskem to sell its green polyethylene produced from sugar-derived ethylene in Japan and Asia. The Japanese company aims to be selling 20,000 tonnes/year of the material within the next three years through its Sojitz Planet subsidiary.

Myriant is also supplying its bio-succinic acid to Showa Denko, in a deal signed in January this year.

The Japanese company will use the acid to make polybutylene succinate (PBS), a high-performance biodegradable polymer. It expects to use some 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes/year of the bio-derived succinic acid by the end of this year.

The PBS is made on a commercial scale at Showa Denko's Tatsuno plant in Hyogo prefecture, and sells under the tradenames Bionolle and Bionolle Starcia, when compounded with starch. Showa Denko is now providing film-grade samples of the material and test marketing to come customers, including Natur-Tek of the US.

Mitsui & Co has been making advances in bio-based materials on several fronts, notably in bio-succinic acid in partnership with Canada-based BioAmber, and in bio-polyethylene with Dow Chemical, in a joint project in Brazil.

The BioAmber deal was announced in November last year and involves Mitsui & Co and BioAmber establishing a joint venture to build a commercial scale production facility in Sarnia, Canada, to go on stream in 2013. The 70:30 BioAmber/Mitsui jv will subsequently consider projects in Thailand and then Brazil or North America, so that capacity will eventually total 164,000 tonnes/year.

The Thai plant is likely to be built also in partnership with PTT MCC Biochem, a joint venture between Mitsubishi Chemical and PTT of Thailand.

Mitsui has been an investor in BioAmber since 2009 and has supported its growth through capital increases. It is putting $15m (€12m) into the new as-yet unnamed joint venture. It has also been carrying out pre-marketing activities for bio-succinic acid in Asia.

The aim of the project joint venture is to produce cost-competitive succinic acid and to promote its use in a variety of applications, including biodegradable resins and polyurethanes. The Sarnia unit will also produce the derivative products 1,4-butanediol and tetrahydrofuran.

Also in 2011, Mitsui signed up with Dow Chemical to acquire a 50% stake in Dow's Brazilian subsidiary Santa Vitoria Acucar e Alcool (SVAA) and form a joint venture aimed at production of biopolymers, notably bio-polyethylene, made from renewable sugar-cane derived ethanol. Mitsui's initial investment is $200m.

The move, says Mitsui, will "enhance further development of important opportunities in securing sugarcane-based resources for Mitsui's green chemical business". In green chemicals, Mitsui's goal "is to contribute to industry and society by securing a stable supply of renewable resources as well as by producing low environmental impact chemicals for those resources".

While now confirmed figures have been released, observers expect a 350,000 tonnes/year PE plant could be operation by 2015.


Sojitz will take bio-succinic acid from a new plant Myriant is building in Louisiana, US

Copyright: RexFeatures

The past year has also seen Mitsubishi Chemical form several strategic alliances with key players in the bio-sector. Last April, the Japanese major agreed an exclusive supply agreement with renewable firm BioAmber and its Asian distributor Mitsui & Co for bio-based succinic acid. They also started a feasibility study for the construction of a plant alongside Mitsubishi's planned polybutylene succinate (PBS) facility in Thailand.

That same week, Mitsubishi Chemical unveiled a joint venture with US-based Genomatica to produce bio-based butanediol (BDO) and other renewable chemicals. This included plans for their first commercial bio-BDO plant in Asia, using Genomatica's technology. Mitsubishi also made an equity investment in the company as part of Genomatica's recently-announced $45m Series C-1 funding.  

"Asia is the fastest-growing chemicals market in the world and we see great potential to deliver bio-based chemicals to this market as a growing complement to our current conventionally-sourced chemicals," said Hiroaki Ishizuka, representative director of Mitsubishi Chemical. "We believe that a strategic partnership with Genomatica will provide market-leading economics and quality which will benefit both parties."

In November 2011, meanwhile, Mitsubishi Rayon and its subsidiary Lucite International announced the development of biomass as a feedstock for methyl methacrylate (MMA). Commercial production of the raw material for MMA was expected by 2016. They aim eventually to produce 50% of their MMA monomer output using biomass.

Developments such as those discussed above will inevitably help Japan in its goal of moving to a 20% share of bio-based polymers in overall consumption by 2020. But the aim is wider than this, and there is scope to extend bio-based materials globally as technology advances and consumers demand more sustainable products.

Read The Chemical Daily online

Author: John Baker and Andy Brice

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.

Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.

Printer Friendly