Renewable Feedstocks are in the Bag

Chemical firms show growing interest in bio-based production.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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Companies in the chemical industry are increasingly using or at least investigating renewable resources such as crops and agricultural residues to replace petroleum-based feedstocks, as we’ve regularly covered (see Related Renewable Energy Content sidebar to the right). This is prompting new, broader thinking about the processes that make polyols, polymers and many other materials.

The price of oil certainly is one major factor driving interest. “It has refocused our thoughts on energy and the need to have alternative feedstocks,” says Katie Hunt, who serves as leader, technology partnerships, at Rohm and Haas Co., Philadelphia, which was recently acquired by Dow Chemical. However, the impetus goes well beyond immediate economic issues.

“Sustainability is the big umbrella under which energy, food and water, and all these global challenges fall,” notes Hunt, who recently received the additional title of corporate sustainability director and is immediate past president of the American Chemical Society. Rohm and Haas wants to help place sustainable development at the forefront of the chemical industry’s thinking, she says, adding that sustainability will be infused throughout the company’s activities. The company is adopting the principles of a non-governmental organization called The Natural Step, which helps companies around the world to integrate  sustainability thinking into the full range of their procedures and policies.

Renewables should be used when they make good environmental sense as well as good business sense, she stresses: “We’re not just looking for a ‘feel-good’ here.”
The potential is luring firms into the chemical industry. For instance, last year corn miller Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Decatur, Ill., formed an industrial chemicals group. “Renewable, bio-based industrial chemicals fit into two major trends that we’re seeing in the marketplace: the desire to improve a product’s environmental footprint and the desire to reduce the use of petroleum-based products,” ADM said at the time.
However, going green may require companies to critically reevaluate how they operate plants and what kind of expertise is essential. After all, bioprocessing typically involves small-scale low-temperature batch operations rather than large-scale continuous units, notes Ryan Gill, managing director of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels (C2B2) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo. (C2B2 gets support from a number of chemical companies). But some firms may find it hard to change from their commodity mindset, believes Oliver Peoples, co-founder and chief scientific officer of bioproducts developer Metabolix, Cambridge, Mass. “The innovation will take place in the small companies,” he predicts.

“You need to be constantly looking for those competencies you’d like to have” and pursuing alliances that make sense, regardless of the partner’s sector or size,” counsels Hunt.

Pursuits of biofeedstock ventures do indeed come in all shapes, sizes, strategies and places. For instance, when DNP Green Technology, Princeton, N.J., wanted to commercialize its fermentation route for making succinic acid from renewable sources, it turned to Agro Industrie Recherches et Developpements (ARD), Pomacle, France, which is owned by a large agricultural group and tries to support the country’s rural economy, to build a demonstration plant, says Dilum Dunuwila, vice president for business development at DNP.

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