InterviewElevance JV Indonesia biorefinery starts shipping chems

18 July 2013 11:00  [Source: ICIS news]

By Al Greenwood

HOUSTON (ICIS)--A joint venture made up of US-based Elevance Renewable Sciences and Wilmar International has begun shipping products from its new biorefinery in Gresik, Indonesia – making one group of chemicals available for the first time in commercial quantities, an executive said on Thursday.

The 180,000 tonne/year biorefinery will consume palm oil – the predominant oil in southeast Asia – to produce C10-C15 unsaturated esters, C16-C18 oleochemicals and long-chained olefins, said Andy Shafer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Elevance.

The unsaturated esters stand out because they are difunctional, in that each molecule has both an olefin and an ester group, he said.

"That gives us what's really exciting about what we deliver," Shafer said. "You have the olefin and the ester that you can do chemistry on, which allows you to do chemistry that you've never been able to before."

Until now, this group of difunctional products has been available only in lab-sized quantities priced at thousands of dollars, Schafer said. Already, Elevance is producing these chemicals in commercial quantities and profitably selling them at dollars per kilogram.

Affordable, commercial quantities of difunctional molecules are leading to the development of new materials, Shafer said. Elevance has been working with Arkema and Stepan, among others, to develop new products.

Companies are developing surfactants with better solvency and cold-temperature cleaning, as well as synthetic lubricants that deliver improved stability and fuel economy, according to Elevance. Other uses for the difunctional molecules include monomers for engineered polymers, coatings, long-chained polyamides, polyurethanes and polyesters.

"With commercial production now available, you will see those things come to market," Shafer said.

The biorefinery's other products, however, should also meet ready markets, Shafer said.

The long-chained olefins range from C10 to C20. Decene, for example, is a feedstock for polyalphaolefins. Polyalphaolefins, in turn, are a key ingredient in synthetic lubricants.

Demand for synthetic lubricants is rising because of stricter emission and mileage standards for automobiles. These stricter rules require smaller and better-performing engines, and these rely on synthetic lubricants.

Likewise, C18 olefins are used to make drilling fluid, Shafer said.

The long-chained olefins are also feedstock for surfactants. C12 olefins can be used to make linear alkyl benzene, providing a bio-based alternative to petroleum-based C12 olefins, Shafer said. This, in turn, can help detergent companies meet sustainability goals.

Petrochemical producers do produce long-chained olefins, but the range is much wider than Elevance's – at C10-C30, Shafer said.

"We can be much more targeted in our production of long-chain olefins such as decene, making us competitive with olefins produced from petrochemical routes," he said.

In addition to the olefins, the biorefinery will also make oleochemicals. Unlike products made by more traditional routes, the biorefinery's oleochemicals will be rich in C16s, which are preferred to make methyl ester sulphonates, Shafer said.

The biorefinery can make these range of products because it uses a catalyst that allows it to run a metathesis reaction on vegetable oils and co-reactant butene, Shafer said.

The reaction breaks the vegetable oils into long-chained olefins and modified triglycerides.

The olefins and modified triglycerides are then separated, with the long-chained olefins going into a finished-products stream and the triglycerides going into a transesterification reactor.

This reactor runs the same reaction used to produce biodiesel, Shafer said. However, the end products of the Indonesian biorefinery do not include biodiesel. Instead, they include the C16-C18 saturated esters and C10-C15 unsaturated esters.

Given the performance qualities of the products and the emerging market demand, Elevance is anticipating that subsequent demand will justify increased capacity, Shafer said.

The biorefinery in Gresik, Indonesia, can be expanded to 360,000 tonnes/year, the company said.

In addition, Elevance is developing a second biorefinery in Natchez, Mississippi.

By: Al Greenwood
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