Market outlook: OPXBIO advances bio-based partnerships

23 August 2013 09:41  [Source: ICB]

The company is on target for commercialising bio-based acylic acid by 2017 through its partnership with Dow. Now it is seeking a partner for fatty acids

US-based renewable chemicals company OPX Biotechnologies (OPXBIO) is on the move, progressing the development of bio-based acrylic acid and other specialty chemicals with current partners, and seeking an additional partnership in fatty acids.

 OPXBIO and Evonik personnel will be working together in each others' laboratories

Copyright: OPXBIO

For its first planned commercial project, OPXBIO is aiming to build a 50,000-60,000 tonne/year bio-based acrylic acid plant with partner Dow Chemical.

"We see the world's first bio-acrylic plant to be around this size, using corn sugar or sugarcane as feedstock. We are targeting start-up in 2017," said Charles Eggert, president and CEO of OPXBIO.

"Ultimately we will transition to cellulosic feedstock as that technology becomes more established. A second bio-acrylic plant could be based on cellulosic and on par with a world-scale petroleum-based acrylic acid plant at up to 150,000 tonnes/year," he added.

In 2011, OPXBIO and US-based Dow announced a joint development agreement to commercialise bio-based acrylic acid as a drop-in replacement for petroleum-based acrylic acid.

The companies have a mutually exclusive agreement for the development of bio-based acrylic acid using OPXBIO's technology.

OPXBIO is within 20% of its target in terms of yield from its proprietary genetically engineered microbes, said Eggert. In the company's bio-based acrylic acid process, sugar is fermented with engineered microbes to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP). The 3-HP is then recovered through a chemical process to yield acrylic acid.

"We are optimising the strain to boost 3-HP yield, while Dow is focused on the downstream conversion step," said Eggert.

OPXBIO would be a joint venture partner in the bio-based acrylic acid plant along with Dow, being involved in the capitalisation, design and construction of the facility.

Its business model contrasts with a licensing model where other bio-based chemical companies simply license their technology to the producer.

The site of the planned plant has yet to be determined, but it could be close to either feedstock sources or to the companies' technical resources. Potential locations include North or South America, or southeast Asia, noted Eggert.

On a cost basis, Eggert maintains that bio-based product must ultimately be at least on par with that of petroleum-based product.

"That is the absolute minimum requirement. However, in the early days, when bio-based supply is scarce with just one or two plants, we expect demand for renewable acrylic acid to exceed supply, so this could impact price," said Eggert.

OPXBIO's initial cost target is around $1/lb for bio-based acrylic acid, but this could fall as the process is fully optimised in the long term, he added.

Ultimately, the bio-based acrylic acid could be sold on the merchant market, or modified and converted to downstream products. Major end markets for acrylic acid include paints, diapers and polymers.

OPXBIO is also targeting commercialisation of a bio-based specialty chemical in partnership with Germany-based Evonik within four years.

"We have a very specific target chemical we're working on, but the technology is more broadly applicable," said Eggert. "While it's a specialty chemical, it doesn't mean small volume. The goal is to eventually supply high volumes," he added, while declining to name the chemical.

On 14 May, OPXBIO and Evonik announced an agreement to jointly develop certain bio-based specialty chemicals.

The companies did not release details on which chemicals.

"Both Evonik and OPXBIO will have the freedom to use the technology we jointly develop to create additional partnerships or develop technologies of our own," explained Eggert.

OPXBIO and Evonik research personnel will be working together in each others' laboratories, said David Hogsett, vice president of research and development and chief technology officer at OPXBIO.

"There will be technology transfer and joint tracking of progress," he noted.

The target chemical and other specialty chemicals will be produced via fermentation of sugars, said Eggert.

OPX is also in discussions for a potential partnership in developing fatty acids using its process based on sugar or hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2).

"We are in active discussions and expect an announcement in the next six to 12 months. This will likely involve fatty acids for chemical uses rather than for fuel," said Eggert.

OPXBIO's fatty acid process uses either sugar feedstock or hydrogen and carbon dioxide generated from biomass, solid waste, industrial off-gas, or natural gas.

"We have a unique way to produce fatty acids via fermentation, resulting in higher yields and more specific fatty acids," noted Eggert.

Fatty acids can be used in industrial and personal care markets, or converted to diesel or jet fuel.

In April 2010, OPXBIO announced it had been awarded a $6m grant from the US Department of Energy (DoE) to support development of advanced biofuels.

"We are now transitioning from DoE-supported work to an industrial partnership," Eggert said.

Key facts

  • Product targets: bio-based acrylic acid, fatty acids
  • Process for bio-acrylic: sugar fermentation to 3-HP, then 3-HP to acrylic acid
  • Capacity target for 1st bio-acrylic plant: 50,000-60,000 tonnes/year
  • Start-up date for 1st bio-acrylic plant: 2017
  • Capacity target for 2nd bio-acrylic plant: up to 150,000 tonnes/year
  • Key partners: Dow Chemical (bio-acrylic); Evonik (unidentified specialty chemical); seeking partner for fatty acids.

By: Joseph Chang
+1 713 525 2653

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