Renewable Feedstocks are in the Bag

Chemical firms show growing interest in bio-based production.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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“We’re looking at this whole bioenergy space not because we want to be a biofuels company but because, by adding value to those crops, we can facilitate low-cost bioplastic or biofeedstock production,” says Peoples. Biotechnology can add value by giving a crop like switchgrass multiple desirable traits such as drought tolerance, high yield and high degradability, he adds.

Figure 1
Pioneer Plant: First fullscale production plant for Mirel biopolymer is taking shape in Clinton, Iowa.
Source: Metabolix.

Metabolix, like other companies, isn’t restricting itself to a single feedstock; it may work with crops other than switchgrass — oil seeds and sugar cane, for example. And it’s also partnering. It formed a joint venture with ADM called Telles, which is commercializing “sustainable and biodegradable” bioplastics trademarked Mirel. The first commercial-scale Mirel production plant is under construction adjacent to ADM’s Clinton, Iowa, wet corn mill (Figure 1). The Mirel plant is expected to be online in the second quarter of 2009 with a capacity of 110 million lb/yr of Mirel resin, in pellet form destined for converters and end-use products.

Other firms also see promise in biopolymers and “green” feedstocks for plastics.” For instance, Braskem, Sao Paolo, Brazil, announced this year a linear polyethylene made from biobutene and intended for markets such as packaging, automotive and hygiene. Also this year, NatureWorks, Minnetonka, Minn., a joint venture of Cargill, Minneapolis, Minn., and Teijin Ltd., Osaka, Japan, launched Ingeo biopolymer fibers for apparel, furnishing and other textile applications. Ingeo is an extruded form of the company’s namesake biopolymer, which already has won acceptance, e.g., for films, containers and coatings.

Meanwhile, Cargill revealed in July that it had begun construction of what it calls the first “world scale” bio-based polyols plant. The $22-million soybean-based facility in Chicago will make so-called BiOH polyols for producing polyurethane for furniture, automotive and other markets. Cargill introduced the polyols in 2005, using a toll processor, but added its own production facilities in Brazil in 2007.

Dow, which began research on bio-based polyols in the early 1990s, markets its Natural-Oil Polyols (NOP) derived from soybeans. Last year the company introduced Renuva brand Renewable Resource Technology for making soybean oil-based polyols.
Dow has been active in biofeedstocks and bioproducts on several fronts. Most recently, in July, it announced a program with the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colo., to jointly develop and evaluate a process to convert biomass to ethanol and other chemical building blocks. A “mixed alcohol catalyst” from Dow will be used to convert nonfood materials like wood wastes and corn leaves to synthesis gas. The gas will be converted into a mixture of alcohols including ethanol for use as transportation fuel or chemical building blocks.

Figure 2
Epichlorohydrin Pilot Plant: Dow developed its glycerin-to-epichlorohydrin process at this pilot plant in Germany.
Source: Dow Epoxy.

A joint venture of Dow and Crystalserv in Brazil produces Dowlex brand polyethylene resins through a process that converts sugar to ethanol and then into ethylene.
Other Dow activities include the manufacture of Propylene Glycol Renewable (PGR) from the glycerin byproduct of biodiesel making. Dow Epoxy has developed a process to produce epichlorohydrin from glycerin and is building a world-scale plant in Shanghai (Figure 2).

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