Japan: Japan seeks edge in renewables

25 October 2013 10:01 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

Investment in renewable chemicals has become a priority for Japanese chemical firms

Japanese chemical companies have been increasing their activities and investments in renewable chemicals in their quest to be more competitive in the global chemicals market. This is gaining pace now that the Japanese petrochemical industry is being squeezed from increasing emphasis on shale gas in North America and the construction of new large-scale petrochemical facilities in the Middle East and China.


Japan’s automotive sector is seeking out bio-based polymers as producers strive to increase the use of sustainable materials

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Japanese chemical companies have always been in the forefront of renewable chemicals research and development because of the country’s limited feedstock resources. These companies are now finding additional benefits for some of the renewable chemicals being developed such as cost-energy savings, additional market applications and higher performance characteristics, apart from having reduced carbon emissions in their manufacturing processes and feedstock usage.

Development of bio-based C4 chemicals will especially be lucrative given their projected supply decline because the C4 hydrocarbon content is low in natural gas compared to crude oil or naphtha. Petrochemical production from naphtha in Japan is expected to decline in the near future because of cost-competitiveness of shale gas.

Bio-based succinic acid is one example where Mitsubishi Chemical, Mitsui & Co, and Showa Denko KK (SDK) are looking for potential growth. Applications for petroleum-based succinic acid, which is conventionally manufactured by hydrogenation of maleic anhydride (MA), has been limited to pharmaceuticals, food ingredients and specialty chemicals because of the inefficiency and costliness of its processing.

The current global market size for petroleum-based succinic acid is around 38,000 tonnes/year and most is produced in Japan and China. Current Japanese producers include Mitsubishi Chemical, Kawasaki Kasei Chemical and Nippon Shokubai.

Ongoing development and the start of commercial production for bio-based succinic acid is expected to generate new markets for succinic acid such as, among others, replacement of MA to manufacture bio-based 1,4-
butanediol (BDO); replacement of adipic acid in some applications such as polyurethanes and plasticisers; replacement of phthalic anhydride (PA) in plasticisers to meet the increasing demand for phthalate-free products; and in the production of biodegradable polymer polybutylene succinate (PBS) that uses both succinic acid and BDO. Recognising a $14bn (€10bn) addressable global market potential for bio-based succinic acid, Mitsui & Co. has established a joint venture with US producer BioAmber to build and finance manufacturing facilities for both bio-succinic acid and bio-BDO worldwide starting with a 30,000 tonnes/year bio-succinic acid plant that will be built in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.

Mitsui is expected to provide know-how regarding shipping and logistics, warehousing, credit checks, freight insurance and trade finance globally as well as facilitate bio-succinic acid sales in Asia. The Sarnia facility is expected to start operations in late 2014 or early 2015.

Mitsubishi Chemical is also looking at the market potential for bio-based BDO that has a global market value of $1.13bn in 2011, as well as the growth potential for PBS, which is projected to reach a market value of $133m in 2020, according to a recent study from an EU-funded project called BioConSepT. Mitsubishi Chemical has been negotiating with US producer Genomatica on a potential joint commercial operation for bio-BDO production in Asia. Mitsubishi Chemical has also partnered with Thailand-based PTT on a joint venture called PTTMCC Biochem, which is currently constructing a 20,000 tonnes/year PBS plant in Rayong, Thailand, that will use bio-succinic acid to be supplied by BioAmber.

Much research and development interest has been focused on blending PBS with other copolymers with complementary properties to expand its range of commercial applications. Mitsubishi Chemical has partnered with automotive equipment supplier Faurecia to develop a 100% bio-based polymer starting with the modification of bio-PBS suitable for automotive interior parts.

SDK started commercially producing its bio-based PBS resin in July last year at its 
Tatsuno facility in Hyogo Prefecture using bio-based succinic acid supplied by US producer Myriant. SDK also produces bio-PBS combined with starch. The biodegradable polymers are already being used for consumer goods packaging applications in India.

Aside from PBS, other biodegradable and bio-based polymers that are currently the focus of Japanese chemical companies’ attentions include bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET), bio-based polybutylene terephthalate (PBT), polylactic acid (PLA), bio-based polyamides and bio-based polycarbonates (PC). Driving the demand for bioplastic products in Japan is increasing interests for their use in automotive, electronics, electrical appliances, and in food and consumer packaging.

Japan is seeking out natural feedstocks for chemicals production

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The Japan BioPlastics Association (JBPA) currently has members of around 250 companies that include resin producers, manufacturers of resin processing products, plastic converters and manufacturers of final polymer products, and trading companies. Since 2000, the JBPA has implemented an identification system for biodegradable plastics products called “GreenPla” where more than 400 products have already been listed.

The JBPA also started in 2006 the world’s first identification system for biomass-based plastics called “BiomassPla” and more than 200 products have already been registered.

According to Teijin, bioplastic is one of the company’s promising businesses. Teijin is currently developing four types of bioplastics: high-resistant PLA, partially bio-based PET, an isosorbide-based PC, and a new bio-based polyester dubbed “vanillic acid polymer” that uses the monomer vanillic acid made from lignin. This new polyester has a bio-based content of almost 100% and reportedly has superior thermal stabilities closed to super engineering plastics.

Toray’s present polymer products are mostly petroleum-based but the company has also started the development of bio-PBT and bio-PET plastics by collaborating with US renewable chemical companies Genomatica and Gevo, respectively. Toray has signed an off-take deal with Gevo for the supply of bio-based paraxylene (PX) produced from isobutanol at a demonstration facility in Silsbee, Texas. The bio-PX is being used to produce a 100% bio-PET for fibres and films, where samples are already being offered to Toray’s business partners this year for market evaluation.

Toray has also been working on partially bio-based PBT engineering plastic components using Genomatica’s bio-BDO. PBT is currently produced by polymerising petroleum-based BDO and terephthalic acid. PBT is used in wide-ranging applications from automobile parts such as switches and ignition coils to electrical parts like connectors and plugs. Toray expects to bring bio-PBT products to market when supplies of bio-BDO are readily available.

Toray said it is already producing bio-based polymer products using commercially available PLA, sugarcane-based polyethylene (PE), cellulose, sebacic acid-based polyamides and polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) poly-ester that use bio-based 1,3 propanediol (PDO). The company is also working with Ajinomoto to develop and commercialise a bio-based polyamide based on 1,5-pentanediamine produced from the amino acid lysine.

Still, it is not easy for Japanese companies to domestically produce bioplastics and their chemical intermediates given their lack of competitive and stable plant feedstock sources. Many are either looking to commercially produce these bio-based products abroad where agriculture feedstock is much cheaper and abundant or produce higher-value bio-based materials where pricing premiums are justified based on their special properties.

Some companies note that they do have to pass some of the premiums to end user but this is not sustainable in the long-term where it will deter wider acceptance for bio-based products. Even in Japan, average consumers have also been reluctant to pay premium for bioplastics despite their sensitivity to environmental issues. According to the JBPA, the challenges for Japanese chemical companies are to find competitive and stable bio-based resources, develop technologies that can diminish cost-premiums and [or] create bio-based materials that have new function, new applications or for new markets.

Doris de Guzman is senior consultant, bio-materials and intermediates at Tecnon OrbiChem and has been writing about green chemistry for over 12 years. She is creator and author of the Green Chemicals Blog and was formerly senior editor at ICIS Chemical Business. Tecnon OrbiChem has published its first issue of Bio-Materials & Intermediates Chemical Business Focus. Visit www.orbichem.com

By Doris de Guzman