Feedstock change is hot and poppin’

Corn, other renewable resources garner increasing interest and investment. Read here about the progress that is being made in discovering a new generation of feedstock.

By Bill Gerards, contributing editor

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Biodiesel beckons
Another major player in agricultural feedstocks, Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur, Ill., announced plans in October to build its first wholly owned biodiesel production facility in the U.S. The 50-million-gallon plant at Velva, N.D., will use canola oil as its primary input. ADM, already active in the biodiesel market in Europe and a leader in U.S. ethanol production, also revealed in September that it plans to expand ethanol capacity by 500 million gallons.

Ethanol and biodiesel fuel might be among the products from a next generation of biorefineries, but much of the chemical industry’s — and DOE’s — interest is focused on other potential biorefinery products, and how these would become building blocks for plastics or a variety of value-added platforms. ADM, for its part, announced in November a plan to build a polyols facility that will use renewable carbohydrate- or glycerol-based feedstocks. The plant, whose location has not yet been disclosed, will produce propylene glycol and ethylene glycol. The company also is in a strategic alliance with Metabolix, Cambridge, Mass., to commercialize a new generation of high-performance plastics based on renewable resources.

Key criteria
The economic justification for plants based on bio-based feedstocks first and foremost depends upon what the materials bring to the value-added products. Discerning the right mix of operations to achieve profitability at different sites “is both the promise and the danger of designing these plants,” says Chuck McCleskey, Atlanta, Ga.-based leader of the bioprocessing strategic initiative at engineering and construction firm CH2M Hill Lockwood Greene. The configuration must be based on a degree of certainty about what the plant will produce, how many products it will make, and in what volumes, and it must allow for flexibility, he says.

Plant location is also an important factor; proximity to feedstocks might offer sufficient logistical savings to justify construction of a new plant, but at other times the retrofitting of an existing plant might make more sense. Despite these uncertainties, the bio-based sector is “growing every day and gaining momentum,” McCleskey says. “A lot more of these projects are moving forward now,” he stresses.
“We’re looking for opportunities to use bio-based materials where the advantage is either performance or cost competitiveness,” says Tom Kauffman, technical manager of adhesives and sealants at Rohm and Haas, Spring House, Pa. The company is in a partnership with Eastman Chemical, Kingsport, Tenn., and Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., backed by a grant from DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rohm and Haas has met an aggressive timetable to develop prototypes of adhesive components that meet performance requirements, says technology partnerships leader Katie Hunt. Thus it is starting to supply some of the answers to crucial questions such as: What building blocks would chemical companies want to use? Which of the competitive routes to those building blocks would be most economical? What would be the optimal team of organizations to work on the bio-based pathways of the future? It’s crucial for research to proceed simultaneously at both ends of the pipeline before new biorefineries are built, she says. After all, Hunt cautions: “You could make all these building blocks, but what if nobody uses them?”

 The company’s monomers group is involved with Engelhard, Iselin, N.J., and the University of Delaware, Newark, Del., in another DOE effort to develop new sustainable catalyst chemistries, seeking “a template for going from alkanes to higher products,” Hunt says. A separate DOE effort has allied the company with ADM and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, to pursue sustainable coatings chemistries, using bio-based materials in a new process to generate binders for paints. She calls this initiative, which has been trimmed back because of government budget cuts, an example of the need for continued government support in risky endeavors that have long time horizons. Such funding could have big payoffs because new processing pathways could save “trillions of BTUs” of energy, use less raw materials, and capture maximum performance from building-block chemicals.

Process challenges
In general, companies hope to be able to shift from petroleum-based to bio-based feedstocks with the same manufacturing infrastructure, says Kauffman, but some new pathways may have important differences. “Certain building blocks are inherently more variable” than their petroleum-based predecessors and may be more limited in their utility or reliability, or may require more purification or additional processing steps, even if they have otherwise desirable characteristics, he notes.
The work already done by Rohm and Haas has found “very promising” signs that the pathways developed for adhesives could be applicable to other product platforms, hugely multiplying the volume of chemicals that might become bio-based, says Kauffman. Hunt adds that the possibilities are “compelling.”

Research in all these areas must continue, and has gotten “a good kick” from the 2005 spike in oil prices, says Hunt, although companies like Rohm and Haas were looking at bio-based chemistry before that.

Among the companies that have been working on pieces of the complex puzzle, with assistance from DOE funds, are enzyme companies Genencor International, Palo Alto, Calif., and Novozymes, Bagsvaerd, Denmark. They both reported last year significant reductions in the cost of cellulase enzymes for converting biomass to ethanol, acknowledging that this is just one step toward their increased involvement in biorefining. Genencor announced in 2005 a new enzyme technology that increases energy efficiency and reduces processing steps in ethanol production. Novozymes recently launched three new enzymes that make the production of ethanol from wheat, rye, and barley up to 20% more efficient.

The DOE, for its part, in 2004 issued a “top 12” list of high-potential, value-added building blocks that might be produced from biomass-derived sugars (see sidebar). Among these are four-carbon di-acids such as succinic acid.

DSM, Heerlen, the Netherlands, formed in late 2003 a partnership with Diversified Natural Products (DNP) of East Lansing, Mich., for commercializing succinic-acid-based products derived through fermentation. DNP announced last August a joint venture with Agro-Industrie Recherches et Developpements, Pomacle, France, to produce succinic acid from corn. Also last summer, AgRenew Inc., Manhattan, Kan., began testing the use of grain sorghum as food for bacteria that make succinate, which is a key ingredient in drugs, food additives, solvents and plastics.

 BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, says its long-range strategy for sustainable development includes “eco-efficiency analysis” of its products, which includes assessing alternative production processes by their consumption of raw materials and energy and generation of emissions.

Other companies, universities, and research institutions have made various announcements about initiatives in bio-based materials. All told, the news of the past year not only suggests a critical mass of interest, funding, and projects, but also powerfully illustrates the depth and breadth of expertise that must come together, from all sorts of organizations, for continuing progress.

The arena of these initiatives is nothing less than a “new frontier,” says Kauffman of Rohm and Haas. “Chemical processing, biotransformation, and enzymatic transformation are all converging to give us a new future chemistry.”


"Top 12" building blocks

The DOE considers the following chemicals, which can be produced from sugars via biological or chemical conversion, particularly promising for making high-value bio-based chemicals or materials:

• four carbon 1,4 di-acids (succinic, fumaric, and malic)
• 2,5 furan dicarboxylic acid
• 3-hydroxy propionic acid
• aspartic acid
• glucaric acid
• glutamic acid
• itaconic acid
• levulinic acid
• 3-hydroxy-butyrolactone
• glycerol
• sorbitol
• xylitol and arabinitol

Source: “Top Value Added Chemicals from Biomass, Volume I: Results of Screening for Potential Candidates from Sugars and Synthesis Gas,” U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Program (2004).
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