Versalis: Green renaissance is gathering pace

26 May 2014 00:00 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

Converting and optimising poorly performing sites and enhancing its product portfolio through an expansion into green chemistry, Italy’s leading producer is laying the groundwork for a far more secure future.

CEO Daniele Ferrari has been overseeing the dramatic turnaround and remains confident that the measures being taken now will propel the petrochemical producer back among the world’s elite firms.

With the aim of revitalising the business after the severe effects of an over-exposure to bulk chemicals and the lacklustre European market, Ferrari launched the €2bn ($2.7bn) programme and kickstarted the initiative with the company’s rebranding. This also included a renewed focus on four key business units – elastomers, styrenics, polyethylene (PE) and intermediates – with added-value products, as well as a radical transformation of inefficient sites including Porto Torres, Priolo and Porto Marghera.

ROLING FIELDS Versalis

Versalis

Significant investment and a new strategic direction are expected to drive growth and secure the company’s future

“Although Europe remains an extremely important market, European producers are making efforts to remain competitive on a global level,” says Ferrari.

“To be competitive there are two key drivers of innovation: know-how and sustainability. And you must also consider the industry within its specific geographical context. In Europe, for instance, the industry has no option: innovation and technological leadership is the way to go. If no measures are taken to boost competitiveness, it is destined to fade away eventually and this is something that a large economy such as ours cannot afford.”

“For some time, the EU chemical industry has seen the erosion of its capacity to compete with the strong players from the Middle and Far East. For this reason, it is now fully committed not only to restructuring or rationalising its traditional facilities but also to decisively taking onboard alternative production methods.”

The emphasis on the bioeconomy, he says, should go some way to alleviating the pressure resulting from growing price volatility of fossil-based feedstocks, concerns over their scarcity and greater restrictions on emissions.

The cornerstone of Versalis’ new strategy is to concentrate on products and technologies where the company holds a leading position, while minimising exposure from other regions – particularly relevant given the emergence of shale gas as a feedstock in the US. The company also pledged a focus on licensing and innovation, particularly in the field of green chemistry to create synergies between the renewable and petrochemical industries.

GREEN VISION

“Versalis has always been pursuing technological leadership and, in the case of chemistry from renewables, this includes synergies with new partners, infrastructures, knowledge and skills,” says Ferrari. “Biotechnology and renewables are the company’s main targets since flexibility and rationalisation are only short-term solutions and are not the magic answer to fixing the issues the industry is faced with, namely energy costs and aggressive competition.”

Daniele Ferrari

“Although Europe remains an extremely important market, European producers are making efforts to remain competitive on a global level”

Daniele Ferrari
Versalis, CEO

Versalis’ first foray into bio-based production started with its landmark €500m Matrica joint venture with Novamont in 2011. The conversion of the Porto Torres site in Sardinia into the largest green chemistry complex in the world is now well underway, with the first phase of the huge project completed in early 2014 (see box). Equally important partnerships have since been established with leading players such as Elevance, Yulex, Pirelli and Genomatica.

Ferrari insists this new green philosophy is already starting to bear fruit and help ensure the company’s long-term success.

“All of our green chemistry partnerships and inhouse R&D aim to enhance Versalis’ bio-based portfolio and will feed oil-based production chains with high-performance intermediates from renewable feedstocks,” he says.

Looking ahead, Versalis is hopeful of more far-sighted energy policies, which balance the importance and industrial needs of the chemical industry with environmental sustainability. “Versalis is striving to find its way through initiatives that will secure competitiveness and long-term sustainability,” adds Ferrari.

“Although bio-based chemicals still only ­account for a small share of global chemicals and polymers production, these greener feedstocks are finally beginning to challenge conventional fossil-based resources in the production of a range of chemical building blocks,” he says. “The trend is clearly positive and the timescale for boosting a decisive takeoff is in the range of a few years. The bio-based chemicals business is ­central, among our strategic targets, to Versalis’ new industrial and business approach.”

Critical to these new plans is increased ­investment – a move that is already starting to pay dividends, insists Ferrari.

“Innovation is not an option for Versalis ­either and is an approach that we really cannot let slip away. We need to make the most of the knowledge we have accumulated over the past 50 years – it helps us in situations where market growth may not be healthy or in ­geographical regions which are stagnant.”

With the opportunities posed by the burgeoning bio-economy, green chemistry is pivotal to the company’s long-term prospects, he says.

MATRICA MODEL MARKS A NEW ERA

The completion of the first phase of the landmark Matrica project positions Versalis as a driving force in green chemistry.

The centrepiece of Versalis’ bold new business strategy is the transformation of its ailing chemical site in Sardinia into a world-class bio-based complex, utilising the latest technologies and setting a benchmark for green chemistry.

The Sardinian Porto Torres site is undergoing a radical overhaul

The Sardinian Porto Torres site is undergoing a radical overhaul

The €500m ($695m) Matrica project – occupying a 27 hectare (67 acre) site – in Porto Torres is set to become one of the largest and most innovative industrial green chemistry complexes in the world. Construction started in 2012, with the project due for completion over a few years.

Since partnering with Italy’s Novamont in the 50:50 joint venture in June 2011, both companies have collaborated to regenerate the site and convert it from traditional fossil-based production into a bio-based behemoth.

Total investment for the initial phase of the project was around €170m, with the first two units – the bio-monomer and bio-esterification plants – encompassing three production lines and coming fully onstream in the second quarter of 2014.

The bio-run industrial complex project will produce bio-plastics, bio-lubricants and bio-additives for elastomers sourced from renewable raw materials such as vegetable oils and agricultural waste.

When the entire project is complete, the site will boast an overall capacity of around 350,000 tonnes/year of bio-products and provide a model that Versalis hopes to replicate across other sites and other regions.

All of the Matrica products are obtained from renewable sources, in particular, biomass and the transformation of vegetable oils. The oil is then transformed into dicarboxylic acids, monocarboxylic acids and glycerol. These products will be the base for a wide range of applications from bio-plastics, in the cosmetic or pharmaceutical sectors for skin and hair treatments, in the field of phytosanitary products, and most importantly they will be used as a base product in bio-lubricants. The bio-lubricants based on pelargonic acid, for example, particularly suit applications requiring high performance. These will feed the automotive industry, marine sector, agriculture and many other segments and provide reduced energy consumption, fuel, as well as longer life for moving mechanical parts.

A dedicated 700 square metre (sqm) research centre was opened in February 2012 to optimise the agricultural supply chain and develop innovative industrial technologies. This soon expanded in size fivefold to 3,500sqm, following the start-up of the pilot plant.

To further steer future synergies and enhance the ongoing research programme, Versalis also signed a framework agreement with the Sardinia Region, the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and the Universities of Cagliari and Sassari.

By Andy Brice