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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“The purity of our product coming out of pilot scale is very close to PGI [propylene glycol industrial grade],” notes Mady Brico, global products director of propylene oxide/propylene glycol for Dow’s Polyurethanes unit. PGR is compatible with many industrial PG applications, such as for unsatu-rated polyester resins for boat hulls and bathroom fixtures, aircraft de-icers, antifreezes as well as heavy-duty liquid laundry detergents. “You have to absorb carbon to grow renewables,” adds Upfill-Brown, pointing out PGR’s potential positive climate-change impact.

Brico expects full-scale commercial availability in 2008–2009, with estimated annual output then of 50 million to 60 million pounds. “We’re waiting to see where glycerin and biodiesel continue to move.” The com-pany is looking at a variety of glycerin supplies, from crude to refined. “Our [current] customer is World Energy, and they actually own the glycerin,” Upfill-Brown says.

Ethanol initiatives

Like biodiesel’s, cellulosic ethanol’s popularity continues to increase. For instance, FutureFuel has been investigating it since this spring. Meanwhile, at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Ill., re-searchers are working on converting corn-kernel fiber into ethanol, explains director John Caupert. “It is conceivable that theoretical ethanol yields will increase by 7% to10%.”

In June, Mendel Biotechnology Inc., Hayward, Calif., and BP, Lon-don, U.K. announced an alliance to develop feedstocks for cellulosic biofu-els. Under the agreement, BP will fund a five-year research program through Mendel.

Research began in June on producing mischanthus, a hardy grass. “It’s the most productive perennial grass in the world — it can be grown in many places,” notes James Zhang, Mendel’s vice president of business develop-ment. Europeans have studied the grass for a decade, he says, and “identified it as promising for cellulosic feedstock.”

Breeding the grass using conventional methods is the team’s initial goal, Zhang says. Each ton of grass now produces about 80 gallons of etha-nol, he explains. “We envision that in a few years, we will be able to get about 100 gallons per ton of grass.” He projects about 10 tons to 15 tons of dried grass per acre and a spring-to-winter growing season. He also foresees creation of grass farms, which Zhang calls dedicated bioenergy farms, and output from them within five years. DOE, the U.S. Department of Agricul-ture and Mendel researched available lands and found “as much as 50 mil-lion acres could be dedicated,” he notes.

In addition, collaborating with BP, Mendel will accelerate an already started breeding program to improve the grass. It plans breeding stations in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. and Auburn, Ala. The company also will step up breeding collaborations with Tinplant Biotechnik und Pflanzenvermehrung GmbH, a breeding-and-plant-science company located in Small Wanzleben, Germany, and Hunan Technical University in China.

Zhang predicts that producing molecules from the entire carbohydrate portion of the crop will require new varieties of grass. “To ensure a consis-tent supply of feedstocks to refineries, a new seed industry is needed to pro-vide farmers with high-yielding varieties.”

One seed that’s already been planted is the idea of using biofeed-stocks, and the chemical industry seems ready to reap the rewards.

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