Dow enters bio-acrylic acid with OPXBIO

Dow Chemical might not be as loud as DuPont or DSM in their bio-based chemicals intent but they have been very active in investing in this area. In the plastics arena, Dow is still intent on producing sugarcane-based polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). In fact, my colleague Anna Jagger wrote an excellent story about the company’s strategy in this market.

But the big news here is Dow looking at the bio-acrylic acid developments and announced last week its intent to collaborate with bioacrylic acid developer OPX Biotechnologies (OPXBIO). Dow is a very big acrylic acid producer (and consumer) and it makes sense for the company to look into diversifying its sources.

By the way, supply of propylene – the main feedstock for petroleum-based acrylic acid – is currently very tight these day, according to ICIS. Acrylic acid capacity in the western markets is also constrained as no new capacity has been added in this region for the past few years — read this excellent (free!) story on acrylates from ICB’s March 25 issue.

“Acrylic monomers are a key building block to Dow’s market-facing businesses that sell into various markets including coatings, packaging, building and construction, and personal care,” says Tim Donnelly, director, strategy and ventures for Dow’s Performance Monomers business. “This, and like projects, will help further create differentiated and diverse product offerings for our customers using innovative technologies and new raw materials.”

Donnelly said the collaboration is currently just focused on research and development work on the viability of industrial-scale bioacrylic acid process although the companies said they will discuss commercialization opportunities in 3-5 years if the R&D is successful.

I’ve asked OPXBIO’s CEO Chas Eggert whether Dow will participate in any of the funding or operation of OPXBIO’s planned 1m lb/year demo facility here in North America, which is expected to operate in 2011-2012. Here is his answer:

“OPXBIO and Dow will be contributing in-kind research and development to the project. It is expected that the joint development work will be conducted at several Dow facilities in the United States and OPXBIO’s laboratories in Boulder, Colo., in addition to possible other locations to be determined.”

My last question was about the lifecycle analysis (LCA) of the bioacrylic acid conducted by Symbiotic Engineering, a greenhouse gas and sustainability consultant. According to the press release OPXBIO’s production process can reduce GHG emissions by more than 70% compared to traditional petroleum-based AA production.

Eggert said the LCA was performed based on a model for the commercial plant and the expected performance of the microbe and bioprocess at commercial scale. OPXBIO does not expect a different LCA outcome when a real commercial plant will be in place.

“Naturally there will be a difference in the LCA based on how sugar cane is grown versus corn, plus other variables, but we would still expect a similar reduction in greenhouse gases as compared to petroleum-based acrylic acid.” -Eggert

OPXBIO said it has achieved commercial-scale manufacturing costs of 70 cents/lb for corn sugar-based bioacrylic acid and 55 cents/lb using sugar feedstock from Brazil. Its ultimate target is 50 cents/lb using corn sugar and less than 40 cents/lb using cane sugar.

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