Chemical Makers Roll Out More Bio-Based Feedstocks

Renewable materials continue to expand their role.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Spurred largely by two main drivers — customer demand and regulatory developments, and the prospect of developing products with new properties and producing molecules more efficiently — chemical makers are increasingly using renewable raw materials.

This certainly holds true at BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany. One of its earliest offerings on a commercial scale was 1,4-butanediol (BDO), which uses cellulosic sugars as a renewable feedstock and technology licensed from Genomatica, San Diego, Calif.

BDO and its derivatives have many uses, such as making plastics for the automotive and textile industries. BASF’s main focus today is on producing bio-based polytetrahydrofuran 1000 (PolyTHF 1000).

With good dynamic mechanical properties, even in variable temperatures, PolyTHF 1000 primarily serves as a chemical component in thermoplastic polyurethane, itself an ingredient used in the manufacture of skis and roller skates, shoe soles, dashboard films in the automotive industry, and many other products.

“Various customers are carrying out ongoing testing of renewable PolyTHF 1000 in other, different applications. With the introduction of new products using it, we plan additional PolyTHF 1000 campaigns — including with different grades — in existing manufacturing plants in 2017,” notes Tobias Berg, global communications, intermediates division.

All of BASF’s renewable resources work is governed by the mass balance method it developed jointly with global technical service organization TÜV SÜD, Munich, Germany. That method mathematically allocates any amount of bio-based raw material used as a feedstock to the respective end products on the basis of their formulation — using the TÜV SÜD certified method.

So far, TÜV SÜD has issued certificates for a broad range of BASF products, including superabsorbent polymers in baby diapers, engineering plastics and various dispersions.

Biorefinery Progress

Meanwhile, one of BASF’s earlier interests, the Plantrose two-stage supercritical hydrolysis-based process for cellulosic sugars developed by Renmatix, Pa., has just attracted further funding. BASF staked $30 million in a non-exclusive pilot venture in early 2012. In September 2016, a group led by Bill Gates and Total, Paris, poured in $14 million. The new money will help Renmatix licensees build Plantrose-enabled biorefineries in countries such as Canada, India, Malaysia and the U.S.

Total made an initial investment in the technology in 2015; the new deal includes a license to operate one million m.t./y of cellulosic sugar capacity. The company has a target of using low-carbon processes to account for 20% of its business portfolio by 2036.

Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton hails the new investment — particularly Total’s million-m.t. license — as compelling indicators of Plantrose technology’s maturation toward the biorefinery scale.

Renmatix also is building on its industrial sugars’ experience by expanding its product portfolio to include crystalline cellulose and proprietary Omno lignin-based polymers that can be tailored to meet customer needs with tunable characteristics such as molecular weight and particle size.

Italian Initiative

Also in September, Genomatica’s BDO technology received a major boost with the opening of a €100-million ($112-million) Mater-Biotech plant in Bottrighe, Italy, by Novamont, Novara, Italy.

Higher-than-anticipated demand for products manufactured from renewable materials spurred the Italian company to boost capacity from the original plan of 18,000 m.t./y; the plant will produce more than 30,000 m.t./y when it reaches full output in early 2017. Novamont claims the facility is the world’s first commercial-scale facility for the bio-based production of a major chemical intermediate.

Genomatica says its BDO process resembles the conventional one but delivers better economics and sustainability. During the development process with Novamont, Genomatica used what it describes as “commercial scale first” thinking to make certain the process would operate reliably at full scale. The two companies also worked very closely during plant design and construction technology transfer and plant startup to ensure a smooth and positive outcome.

BDO produced by the plant enables Novamont to deliver its fourth-generation of Mater-Bi bioplastics with greater sustainability. Mater-Bi is used for biodegradable, compostable products such as fruit and vegetables bags, mulch film and coffee capsules. Products made with this new BDO will save an estimated 56% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the use of conventional BDO.

In addition, the plant is a starting point for further integration with both feedstock supplies and product manufacturing in the region. Novamont hopes eventually to have six interconnected sites and four new proprietary biorefining technologies there.

In a separate but related development, Genomatica has forged an alliance with Ginkgo Bioworks, Boston, Mass., to accelerate commercialization of more-sustainable high-value intermediate and specialty chemicals. The aim is to allow mainstream chemical producers to explore and adopt new biological technologies.

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