Green Chemistry: Biofeedstocks Still Grow

Economic conditions have slowed but not stopped the drive to use renewable resources.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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"We're feeling very good about our technology right now," declares Richard Bailey, CEO. While the current economy has complicated raising money, there are interested investors, he says. Prudent use of capital dictates opting for toll manufacturing instead of building a facility. In addition, "we are doing some things sequentially where normally we would have done them as parallel," Bailey notes.

Succeeding with commodity chemicals requires large-scale low-cost infrastructure that a small company can't provide. So, Microbia aims to team up with major producers. One such partnership is with Tate & Lyle, London, to pursue unspecified opportunities, says Bailey.

turning sugar into ethanol
Figure 2. Demonstration Plant: Facility in Jennings, La.,
uses bagasse and sugar waste to produce ethanol.
Source: Verenium.

Expanding the Choices
The number and variety of project and product announcements suggest a fast pace of activity in the biofeedstocks and renewables arena. The movement from food-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol is brisk. Besides the DDCE/University of Tennessee demonstration plant, BP, London, and Verenium, Cambridge, Mass., announced in February a 50/50 joint venture for a commercial-scale plant in Highlands County, Fla., with ground breaking planned in 2010. Ethanol now is being produced from bagasse and sugar waste by Verenium in Jennings, La. (Figure 2), from woody biomass by Range Fuels, in Denver, Colo., and from wheat straw by Iogen in Ottawa, Canada, according to the annual report posted at the RFA website, http://www.ethanolrfa.org.

Other feedstocks attract chemical experts and corporate investors, too.

Algae promises high supply scale-up potential because of its prolific growth. OriginOil, Los Angeles, says its bioreactor technology speeds algae development; the company hopes to license that technology to customers including chemical and oil companies, and to enter into partnerships with biofuels producers.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Decatur, Ill., is collaborating with ConocoPhillips, Houston, to turn corn stover, switchgrass and wood waste into biocrude that can be processed in traditional refineries. In addition, ADM is operating biodiesel production plants in North Dakota and Brazil.

There's also plenty of action in products and services to support bio-based production or reduce its cost.

For instance, Verenium announced in March a partnership with Alfa Laval, Lund, Sweden, to offer enzymatic degumming services that increase the yields of biodiesel — using Verenium's Purifine PLC enzyme and Alfa Laval's engineering services and equipment.

Meanwhile, Rohm and Haas, Philadelphia, (now part of Dow) has introduced a feedstock purification technology that is said to allow biodiesel makers to efficiently convert alternative feedstocks like crude vegetable oils and animal fats.

Akzo Nobel Polymer Chemicals, Chicago, and lactic-acid-derivatives supplier Purac, Gorinchem, the Netherlands, reported in January that they've developed additives that will broaden the applications for polylactic acid (PLA) in the growing biopolymer market. The new additives help make PLA more stable and amenable to various processing equipment.

Altering its Approach
DuPont's primary goal only a few years ago was to not add bio-components to its existing portfolio but to find "transformative new products that could only be brought to market using the new biotechnology tools." Biobutanol, now in development with partner BP, reflects that goal — "a new product with superior performance that just happened to be biologically derived and renewably sourced," notes Jan Koninckx, global business director for DuPont BioFuels, a part of DuPont Applied BioSciences. He tells Chemical Processing DuPont remains interested in biofeedstocks that entail a different approach but is also willing to invest in biofeedstocks that promise to fit well into existing processes. Biobutanol "will likely fit into the existing grain ethanol process infrastructure," he expects; the DDCE joint venture will seek to bolt its technology onto existing grain ethanol assets or will develop new stand-alone facilities.

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