Renewable Feedstocks are in the Bag

Chemical firms show growing interest in bio-based production.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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DuPont already markets products based on renewables. For instance, the company told Chemical Processing that next year it will complete an expansion of its Sorona polymer plant in Lenoir County, N.C. A key ingredient in the polymer is so-called Bio-PDO — 1,3 propoanediol derived from corn and considered an important building block for bioproducts.

The Bio-PDO is manufactured in the Loudon, Tenn., plant of DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products, a partnership with sugar-maker Tate & Lyle, London, U.K. The joint venture recently announced that its Zemea brand of propanediol, developed for use in cosmetics and personal care products, has received certification as a natural product by Ecocert, L’Isle Jourdain, France, an international certification group.

Zemea and another branded grade of Bio-PDO, as well as Sorona and a renewably sourced polyol branded Cerenol are among the offerings of DuPont BioMaterials, one of the businesses in the DuPont Applied BioSciences technology platform for high-performance renewable-sourced materials. Another Applied Biosciences business, DuPont Bio Fuels, last year entered a partnership with BP to construct a demonstration facility for biobutanol, an advanced biofuel that might compete with ethanol in the future.

Another company that has formed a partnership with BP — this time to accelerate the development and commercialization of cellulosic ethanol — is Verenium, Cambridge, Mass., which has proprietary technology for producing ethanol from such feedstocks as sugar-cane bagasse, wood products, agricultural waste and dedicated energy crops.  A first-phase agreement between BP and Verenium announced in August aims to invest $90 million in technology development over the next 18 months. A second-phase agreement, now in discussions, could yield a joint venture set to develop projects in the U.S. and potentially to license the technology overseas. Verenium foresees the  first commercial-scale facility starting production of cellulosic ethanol by 2012. At this time, a plant capacity of 30 million gallons per year is envisioned, using sugar-cane bagasse, energy cane (similar to sugar cane but high in fiber and closer to the predecessors of today’s high-sucrose canes), high-biomass grain sorghum, and similar grassy crops.

Verenium also has recently won a DOE grant that it expects to use to support operations at a demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Jennings, La. DOE has committed nearly $2 billion, over more than a decade, to support cellulosic energy technology, notes John Howe, vice president for public affairs at Verenium. Much of DOE’s money has gone toward use of corn stover and switchgrass as feedstocks, although Verenium’s own part of the research has centered on faster-growing canes, yielding more biomass per acre. Nevertheless, the company’s technology is adaptable to a broad range of feedstocks, Howe stresses.
“This is part of a historic shift,” he adds, reflecting that the energy and chemical industries’ stepped-up focus on renewable carbohydrate sources of energy is actually a reversal of the shift toward fossil hydrocarbons that started with coal-burning industries of the 18th century. The quest isn’t only for cheaper power but also for finding the most efficient, practicable ways to produce sugars as chemical building blocks, says Howe. No one company can do it alone: “Alliances are going to be a key part of making this technology commercial.”

More Direct Route  
Production of bio-based chemicals typically requires fermentation, e.g., to make ethanol or another building block. However, Metabolix is working on a shortcut. In August the company revealed that it had bioengineered switchgrass plants to produce significant amounts of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) bioplastics in their leaf tissues. “This result is the first successful expression of a new functional multi-gene pathway in switchgrass,” demonstrating “a powerful tool for maximizing the potential of biomass crops for both bioplastics and biofuels production,” Metabolix declared.

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