By John Baker, London
Production of commercial-scale quantities of bio-succinic acid at Sarnia in Canada represents a significant landmark in the development of BioAmber, as well as in the market for the bio-based material in general.
The 30,000 tonne/year plant, built in just two years and with an investment of $142m, offers chemical producers a consistent and reliable source of succinic acid, a versatile building-block chemical with an established and now rapidly growing range of applications. The project has been developed as a joint venture with Japan’s Mitsui & Co.
New uses being opened up include plastics, coatings, textiles, artificial leather, food and flavours, and personal care products. The chemically derived version of the product already has an established market of around 50,000 tonnes/year, especially in China and other parts of Asia, where it is used in food ingredient and agrochemical applications.
Succinic acid was identified back in 2004 by the US Department of Energy (DOE) as one of 12 leading candidates for commercial development using bio-based or syngas routes as alternatives to petrochemical-based production.
So, in 2008 BioAmber spun off from Diversified Natural Products (DNP) and set out to scale up a process to make succinic acid from sugars, leveraging the technology it had licensed from the DOE in the late 1990s, based on the fermentation of sugars using Escherichia coli.
The newly created spinoff inherited a joint venture in France with Agro-industrie Recherches & Developpements (ARD) and used this to scale up the technology at ARD’s multipurpose demonstration-scale facility in Pomacle.
This was a critical phase, notes BioAmber CEO Jean-Francois Huc. The fermentation reactors at Pomacle, at 350,000 litres, were some of the largest in the world at that time and enabled large-scale development and trials to be carried out from January 2010.
“We used the demo plant to significantly improve and simplify the technology and were able to run the process on a continuous basis”, he said. This allowed BioAmber to address the important issues of waste streams and recycling, and to manage the inevitable build-up of impurities in the process “which you don’t see at the lab and pilot scales.”
“We strive to be a leading bio-based materials producer and have always seen the benefits of owning and operating plants”Jean-Francois Huc
Five years of learning at the Pomacle facility has been transferred to the Sarnia plant, Huc notes. But the transfer to the new, commercial-scale plant was not to be that straightforward, he adds. It became clear to BioAmber that use of E. coli was not the best way forward, as the bacterium is sensitive to pH in the fermentation process, and this falls as the succinic acid is produced, effectively poisoning the reaction.
The answer was to make a big leap and use yeast to carry out the fermentation, says Fabrice Orecchioni, chief operations officer at Bio-Amber. Cargill had already developed a yeast that could produce lactic acid, and so BioAmber exclusively licensed the yeast from Cargill and then collaborated with Cargill to re-engineer the yeast, together with the BioAmber R&D team, so that it would optimise the production of succinic acid at a much lower pH than E. coli.
This left BioAmber with something of a dilemma, explains Orecchioni, as it had already designed the Sarnia commercial facility based on the E. coli technology. “The decision was taken in 2012 to switch technologies and delay the Sarnia project by a year,” he says.
The rest is, as they say, history – if indeed only very recent history. Construction on the now simpler and more economical plant was begun in autumn 2013 and completed in spring 2015. The official opening took place in August last year, with the first commercial product being shipped to customers in the fourth quarter of 2015.
The ramp-up to full operating capacity is expected to proceed smoothly and be completed in 2017. It is, as it stands, the largest succinic acid plant in the world, and production costs are lower than at petroleum-based facilities.
Early experience with the plant has confirmed the superior performance of the proprietary yeast used in the fermentation process and shown it to be above the initial targets set for 2015. Product quality is also better than product previously made in the Pomacle demonstration unit.
Huc and Orecchioni are both keen to extol the performance achieved during plant construction, especially for a new technology delivered by a bio start-up company. “We were very schedule-driven”, notes Orecchioni, “and were heavily prepared for the commissioning and start-up phase. We invested early in this – recruiting people two years in advance and training operators. We also made sure our business processes worked so we would be ready for an effective start-up”.
“It has been an incredible achievement,” adds Huc. “Not only have we got the plant up and running quickly, but we have already obtained essential safety, environmental and quality management system certifications so that customers can rely on the product coming out of the plant. This differentiates us from some other biochemical companies.”
He also points out the plant was built without a single lost-time injury and that the construction project won a safety award from IHSA (Infrastructure Health and Safety Association) last year. “What our operations team has been able to do as a small company has been absolutely remarkable.”
Says Orecchioni, “The plant started up relatively smoothly and on time, and we have begun doing some early optimisations of the process and control. We are moving ahead quickly with getting product qualified by customers, with roughly 100 companies having already qualified our bio-succinic acid.”
“The plant started up relatively smoothly and on time... We are moving ahead quickly wqith getting product qualified by customers”Fabrice Orecchioni
As well as making succinic acid globally competitive, the new production process will make the chemical available more sustainably. The starting materials are sugars from renewable crops, and the production process overall allows a 100% reduction in emission of greenhouse gases when compared with the equivalent conventional process using oil as a feedstock.
The focus in the short term for the new plant, says Orecchioni, “is to make sure operation is consistent and that we are delivering volumes to our customers. The key to our success in the market is to prove we can be seen as a reliable player and operating company and can supply quality material on a reliable basis.”
BioAmber has a strong commitment to operational excellence both in manufacturing and supply chain, he adds, using LEAN principles, for instance, in both areas. “Everything is driven by value to the customer,” he declares.
The Sarnia plant and the move to full commercial production of succinic acid is an affirmation of BioAmber’s strategy to concentrate on production rather than licensing of the technology it develops, often in partnerships. The decision to be a manufacturer was made very early on, says Huc.
“BioAmber is different to many other bio-based manufacturers. We did not begin as a biofuels company, and we decided not to go down the route of producing branded specialty ingredients. We want to be a bio-based materials producer and have always seen the benefits of owning and operating our own plants.”
As well as succinic acid, BioAmber has licensed technology to produce 1,4-butanediol (BDO) and tetrahydrofuran (THF) using its succinic acid as a feedstock. It has plans for a second large-scale facility that will produce all three (see page 7), but for the moment, concludes Huc: “It’s all about ramping up Sarnia – in terms of production, sales, expanding the customer base. This is the foundation of our next phase of growth.”