Innovation Awards: Bio-PX paves the way for green PET

18 October 2013 10:22  [Source: ICB]

Virent’s BioForming process for the conversion of plant sugars into paraxylene has brought it the Best Innovation in Sustainability award

US-based Virent has developed technology to catalytically convert sustainable and renewable bio-based feedstocks into paraxylene (PX), which is used in the production of PET packaging and polyester fibres and fabrics. The BioForming process is based on a combination of the company’s aqueous phase reforming technology and modified conventional catalytic processing and reactor systems.

Virent has been established for over 11 years in Madison, Wisconsin, US, and presently has 85 employees. The BioForming process had its beginnings in the development of technology to produce hydrogen gas from biomass – the technology on which Virent was founded. As part of this development, Virent discovered that the resulting process water contained several compounds identical to those found in gasoline.

This discovery, combined with rising oil prices and increasing concern around climate change and carbon dioxide emissions, led the company to shift the focus towards developing its technology into the production of renewable transportation fuels. This resulted in significant interest from companies that are investors in Virent including Shell, agribusiness major Cargill and Honda.

Virent realised that the process was producing renewable replacements for a wide range of molecules traditionally sourced from fossil fuels, including a number of aromatic chemicals, of which PX was one. At this time, the company identified an opportunity in the polyester supply chain – Coca-Cola and other companies were pursuing 100% bio-based PET and this required 70% bio-based PX for its manufacture. Virent then firmly set its focus on developing its PX, trademarked BioFormPX, and the first material was produced in 2011.

Choosing this route has led to agreements with Coca-Cola to jointly develop BioFormPX with the aim of providing the drinks giant with the ability to use 100% bio-based PET for its packaging requirements by 2020. The companies are now two years into the development programme – Coca-Cola has funded Virent’s optimisation activities for the material, which includes a master supply agreement that sets the stage for off-take when commercial plants come on stream.

“With the benefit of a significant amount of investment from the oil sector, we had a core, developed platform technology that we have optimised and tuned to enter customer-specific markets identified to diversify and give us more opportunities beyond renewable fuels,” says Virent president and CEO, Lee Edwards. “This was really the genesis of choosing to work with Coca-Cola.”

Kieran Furlong, Virent’s business development director for chemicals, adds: “We realised that there was a huge hole in the polyester supply chain. This was a strong determinant in our move to focus on PX, the economics were right and in Coca-Cola we had a very large brand company who saw real value for themselves and their consumers in having a bio-based and sustainable packaging material.

“The thing that differentiates the BioForming route is that it is not a biological process, it is much closer to traditional chemical engineering. It is fully contained and continuous, utilising temperature, pressure and catalytic effect to convert a soluble carbohydrate in an aqueous environment into hydrocarbons.”

Another key part of the technology is hydrodeoxygenation, which utilises external hydrogen to effect the removal of oxygen from the carbohydrate molecule – this means that almost all of the carbon in the feedstock is used in the product, increasing yield and reducing carbon loss to CO2 from over 30% to about 1% to 2%.

The catalytic conversion process takes 90 minutes to complete, compared with one or two days encountered in batch fermentation. It also brings scalability and can operate using a wide range of feedstocks. Virent’s research work on feedstocks has been partly funded by early development research grants from the US Department of Energy.

Preliminary greenhouse gas emission reductions have been calculated using US corn, European sugar beet, and Brazilian sugarcane as potential feedstocks and estimated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of around 30%, 35% and 55%, respectively, have been achieved compared with a petroleum baseline.

“We’re presently advancing from development to deployment,” says Edwards. “There is room for progress through licensing or manufacturing collaboration. Ideally, we’d like to partner in some way with existing players in the value chain, using existing infrastructure to reduce capital expenditure for the BioForming technology, then demonstrating scale-up.”

The Coca-Cola project is progressing well and targets are being met. Edwards says that the progress on specific milestones in the joint development agreement gives Virent the confidence in commercial scale-up. Furlong concludes: “I look forward to the day when I pull a 100% bio-based PET bottle of Coke off the supermarket shelf and I can say ‘Virent made this happen’.”

Author: Mark Whitfield

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