What is Itaconic acid?

Thanks to the Green Underworld Reporter about this green tech company called Itaconix that I have not encountered before.

Based in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, Itaconix (and its partners Microbia Inc. and the University of Maine) recently received a $1.8m grant from the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy to produce green polymers from itaconic acid fermented with sugars extracted from hardwood biomass.

Itaconix just introduced this year its polyitaconic acid-based product line Itaconix Super Absorbent and Itaconix Dispersant, which is produced from fermented itaconic acid with corn glucose as feedstock. With the grant, the company hopes to use waste biomass and lignocellulosic instead of corn as feedstock.

“The research possible through this biomass initiative offers another major step toward sustainability and away from petroleum dependence by allowing us to use biomass wood and not divert corn away from food uses,” said John R. Shaw, principal of Itaconix.

Now the question remains: What is itaconic acid?

According to the USDA, polyitaconic acid (PIA) is a water soluble polymer with a wide range of applications including superabsorbents (SAP), anti-scaling agents in water treatments, co-builders in detergents, and dispersants for minerals in coatings.

Itaconic acid was identified as one of the top 12 value added chemicals from biomass in 2004 by the DOE but its polymerization was identified as a key barrier to commercial development. This technical barrier was said to have been overcome by the University of Hampshire researchers which licensed the technology to Itaconix.

PIA is said to be an attractive replacement to the well established petroleum-based polyacrylic acid. According to Itaconix, potential global market for PIA is 1.65m metric tons/year with SAP occupying 67% of the market; 3% adhesives, 9% dispersants; 6% water treatment; 11% detergents; and 4% for new SAP markets.

In order to displace polyacrylic acid, Itaconix said it must reach a production cost below $1.5/Kg using biomass feedstock. PIA has been produced by Itaconix using commercial itaconic acid obtained by the fermentation of dextrose typically derived from corn or rice. Under such non integrated structure, PIA can be produced at a cost of $3/Kg.

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