Eco-friendly Developments Blossom

Chemical makers strive to markedly extend the role of renewable feedstocks

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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"E2P2 is another strong initiative and a long-term commitment to sustainable development by ensuring that the new chemistries that will be developed in the future are eco-friendly and deliver significant environmental benefits. Thus, even upstream research is now focused and committed to sustainable development," notes Decampo.

The first projects will focus largely on carbon-based products, mainly surfactants or plastics — with the hope that the associated technologies will also deliver new businesses for the Rhodia group as a whole.

"Most of the projects have two firm targets, one environmental and another one economical. For example, for the projects aiming at replacing oil-based raw materials by bio-sourced raw materials, the target is to reduce by 30–50% the overall carbon footprint of products compared to existing industrial benchmarks. Of course, to achieve a full benefit and to replace the existing technologies, there must also be an economical target that is realistic."

Decampo anticipates that moving new technologies from the laboratory to industrial scale will take between two and ten years, depending on the particular project.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Rayon Company and subsidiary group Lucite International, both part of the Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation, Tokyo, are continuing their drive for innovation by developing sustainable feedstock sources for producing methyl methacrylate (MMA). They plan to use sustainable feedstocks for commercial MMA production by 2016, and to get at least 50% of their MMA output from these sources as soon after that as possible.

To achieve this, the companies are investing in two approaches: using renewable feedstock sources as raw materials in existing processes, and developing novel routes for producing methacrylate monomers directly from renewable sources.

Simultaneously, the companies will continue to innovate in catalysis and process technology to reduce resources consumed per unit of output in all of their activities.

"In terms of alternative feedstocks, in the short term, there are some potential bio-based feedstocks for Mitsubishi Rayon Group's existing MMA plant, including acetone, ethylene (from ethanol) and isobutylene (from isobutanol). In the long term, carbohydrates are the most promising feedstocks," says spokesman Hiro Naitou.

A number of new processes are being advanced in parallel, with one, which he declines to identify, already at the scale-up stage.

Naitou and others from Mitsubishi Rayon are named in U.S. Patent 7,557,061, which outlines a method for producing a catalyst containing molybdenum and phosphorus for use in synthesizing MMA through gas-phase catalytic oxidation of methacrolein with molecular oxygen. According to Naitou, this latest initiative takes a different direction: "The technology of sustainable MMA is altogether different from previous catalysts and processes. Mitsubishi Rayon Group is doing the R&D at corporate research laboratories in Japan and U.K."

In December, Toray Industries, Tokyo, announced it had produced laboratory-scale samples of the world's first fully renewable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) fiber by using PET derived from bio-based paraxylene supplied by Gevo, Eaglewood, Colo.

Gevo converts isobutanol produced from biomass into paraxylene via a production method that uses synthetic biology in a conventional commercial chemical process.

Toray made PET from terephthalic acid synthesized from Gevo's paraxylene and commercially available renewable monoethylene glycol by applying a new technology and polymerization. This bio-based PET exhibits properties equivalent to petro-based PET in laboratory conditions.

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