Is bio-based BDO for real?

This is an article from ICIS Chemical Business published on May 16 and written by ICIS colleague Brian Balboa. Brian handles the ICIS pricing report on US butanediol (BDO) and he was able to talk to his contacts in the industry about bio-BDO and what they think about its developments.

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The debate over bio-BDO is likely to continue for some time yet

One of the biggest questions coming out of the NPRA International Petrochemical Conference (IPC) in March this year was from the butanediol (BDO) market, regarding the emerging bio-BDO sector: “Is bio-BDO for real?” asked a BDO consumer on the sidelines of the IPC.

Although the development of a commercial-scale bio-BDO plant is still in the works, trade participants are still skeptical, and remain interested in how this may impact the market. “Would consumers be willing to pay a premium for bio-BDO?” one major BDO producer asked. A consumer reckoned no-one, “unless there was a directive to go green.”

The consumer added if the specifications for a petrochemical-based BDO and a bio-based BDO were similar or equal, then bio-BDO may be a good alternative feedstock source – especially if supply in the market remained tight. But some have said bio-BDO may not necessarily be more expensive than petrochemical-based BDO.

“I don’t see that there will be a cost delta between hydrocarbon-based BDO and bio-based BDO,” another North American consumer said. “Bio-based producers are approaching the market at par with their competition.”

The consumer also said some ­producers are savvier about the demand and opportunity than others, and expects there to be more announcements about that in the coming months.

Market participants have described the current BDO market as globally tight, with strong demand in all regions.

In North America, suppliers said during the first quarter that demand was so strong they declined requests for extra volume outside of contractual obligations. This year, there have been some major announcements about the development of bio-BDO – and its potential impact on the BDO market.

One company at the forefront of this is US biochemical company Genomatica.

Myriant Technologies and Davy Process Technology also announced in February that they signed a memorandum of understanding covering the use of succinic acid as a bio-derived feedstock for the production of BDO, tetrahydrofuran (THF) and gamma-butyrolactone.

On April 28, Genomatica signed a broad memorandum of understanding with Mitsubishi Chemical, outlining multiple potential areas of collaboration.

This includes the study of a joint venture for bio-BDO production in Asia, by building the first commercial plant in the region using the Genomatica’s direct, one-step technology and Mitsubishi’s BDO applications and business knowledge. 

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There had been a lot of announcements since this was published in May.

  • Metabolix announced its joint development deal for its polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA)-based C4 chemicals — initially BDO, tetrahydrofuran (THF), gamma butyrolactone (GBL) and polyester engineering resins (PBT) — with Korea-based industrial biotechnology company CJ CheilJedang.
  • Genomatica files for IPO.
  • BASF and Purac formed a bio-succinic acid JV and reportedly aiming to be the first commercial bio-succinic acid producer in the market with a 25,000 tons/year capacity that will be located in Purac’s site near Barcelona, Spain.
  • BioAmber announced new biosuccinic acid and bio-BDO plants in Ontario, Canada, and in Rayong, Thailand.

Consulting firm Nexant is actually working on a study this year to analyze various bio-BDO technologies. The report will provide comparison of the technology, economics and potential markets for bio-BDO.

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