Biofeedstocks see real growth

Economics as well as increasing corporate emphasis on sustainability and environmentally friendly products are spurring the use of biofeedstocks to make chemicals and fuels.

By C. Kenna Amos, contributing editor

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Figure 3. Full-scale production campaign for natural-oil polyols allowed trial manufacturing of foam.

Dow’s multi-step process decomposes the vegetable oil into essential components and functionalizes the molecules to create diols, triols, etc., O’Driscoll explains, adding that the process suits many natural oil feed-stocks besides soy. She says the NOP renewable content depends on cus-tomer-application-specific design requirements for the final polyol. Initial NOP offerings will be for conventional bedding-and-furniture slab foam; memory or viscoelastic foams; flame-laminate foams for the automotive in-dustry; and coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers.

Initially the company’s Dow Haltermann Custom Processing (DHCP) unit in Houston will manufacture the NOP. “We’ve had our first commercial sale to a domestic company,” O’Driscoll says, forecasting fully commercial production by the end of 2007.

A new industry?

While DuPont and Dow employ materials traditionally grown mainly for food use, researchers are sowing other types of biofeedstocks. “We’re on the verge of the beginning of a new industry producing fuels and chemicals from biomass — non-food — feedstocks,” believes Jonathan R. Mielenz, leader of the bioconversion-science-and-technology group at the U.S. De-partment of Energy‘s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Mielenz thinks that food-crop/starch-based feedstocks work better than biomass-based ones for monomers and polymers, though. That’s pri-marily because biomass-based chemicals require more purification, he ex-plains.

However, that doesn’t limit the use of biomass for other chemicals. For example, he suggests biomass is preferred for ethanol and butanol “in part, because they can easily be separated from the fermentation liquor by distillation.” These biomass-derived alcohols also have the same properties as ones produced from conventional feedstocks, he says.

Fermentation of biomass can readily produce chemicals such as fur-furals, levulinic acid and other materials. Ongoing work at ORNL involves cellulose-to-ethanol fermentation at high temperature, Mielenz notes. This yields not only ethanol but byproducts such as lactic and acetic acids. De-veloping new processes like these and making them available to companies for commercialization remains an ORNL goal, he stresses.

One company taking advantage of DOE fermentation technology is Diversified Natural Products Inc. (DNP), New York, N.Y. “DNP has exclusive rights to the succinic-acid-fermentation technology developed at DOE and patented by it and Michigan State University,” says Dilum Dunu-wila, the company’s vice president of business development.

DNP has allied itself with France’s Agro Industries Recherche et Developpement (ARD) to create joint venture BioAmber. “ARD has extensive experience in developing and commercializing fermentation-based products,” notes Dunuwila.

Funded by the Champagne Cereales cereal, Crystal Union sugar-beet and Chamtor alfalfa cooperatives, ARD will provide direct access to wheat- and sugar-beet-derived glucose through an 80-million-gal/yr ethanol facility the cooperatives are constructing at Bazancourt-Pomacle, France. Phase I of the Cristanol ethanol plant began operation this June. Phase II, which will about double capacity, is under construction and should come online in late 2008. It also will yield byproduct CO2, a raw material for BioAmber’s succinic acid, to be produced at an adjacent bio-refinery.

Currently, BioAmber is moving ahead with a 5,000-metric-ton/yr succinic-acid demonstration facility near the ethanol plant. Dunuwila expects start up in the first quarter of 2009. Then, the joint venture plans to construct a 50,000-metric-ton/yr unit that integrates with the ethanol plant. “DNP will build a similar-sized facility in North America,” he predicts.

Fueling additional demand

Meanwhile, the use of biofeedstocks to make fuels continues to grow. For instance, palm oil is winning a notable role as a feedstock. Facilities based on it are “becoming very large” says Peter Faessler, lead application engi-neer with Sulzer Chemtech, Winterthur, Switzerland. He adds that the un-wanted, higher-melting solid fraction in crude-palm-oil-based biodiesel is an important raw material for oleochemicals. That particular fraction can be further purified by distillation or hydrogenation to produce fatty alcohols.

Soy serves as a principal feedstock in biodiesel production at Future-Fuel Chemical, Batesville, Ark., which got into biofuels in late 2005. Be-sides biodiesel, the company has been making premium fuel pellets with North Arkansas hardwoods since last March.

“We’re a multifeedstock biodiesel producer,” explains biofuels man-ager Rich Byers. The company’s continuous biodiesel process can accom-modate refined soybean oil and cottonseed, canola, corn and palm oils, as well as pork lard, beef tallow and poultry fat. “What comes out is ASTM D6751 biodiesel, made predominantly from soybean and cottonseed oils and probably some pork lard,” he notes. The Batesville facility is a BQ-9000 producer, meaning it satisfies the requirements of the National Biodiesel Ac-creditation Commission. Annual production is 24 million gallons, but the company in April announced plans to boost output to 196 million gal/yr. within 18 months.

For every gallon of biodiesel, FutureFuel produces a pound of glyc-erin. The company currently is investigating methods to use that byproduct in antifreeze and animal-food additives, Byers notes.

Another BQ-9000 producer is Dow. DHCP makes biodiesel in Hous-ton, Texas; Kallo, Belgium; and Middlesbrough, U.K. “For every 10 million gallons of biodiesel, we get 1 million gallons of glycerin,” explains Simon Upfill-Brown, DHCP’s general manager. This has led to another Dow initia-tive, to deal with glycerin byproduct — which is becoming a major issue for biodiesel makers (see www.ChemicalProcessing.com/industrynews/2007/020.html and www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/099.html). The company now is converting that glycerin into polyethylene glycol renewable or PGR. In March Dow started what it terms a pilot-scale unit to produce PGR at an an-nual rate of 10 million to 20 million pounds.

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