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Biotech-based building blocks: potential new sources of key raw materials.

Demand for coatings produced from ingredients with high biobased content is growing as consumer interest in all aspects of sustainability increases (see article on page 22 of this issue--Ed). Typically, resins and additives produced from biobased materials are generated from naturally occurring compounds in plants such as vegetable seed oils. A few companies are developing coatings ingredients based on biological compounds such as peptides and proteins.

Another area that is receiving significant attention is the production of basic chemical raw materials via fermentation of biomass. Of particular interest to the coatings industry are the companies developing such processes for the production of acrylic and succinic acids.

Acrylic acid, conventionally produced via the oxidation of propylene, has been in short supply on several occasions in the last decade, including in 2010. Currently, the tightness is due to industrial accidents and turnaround-related plant closures, but changing crude oil sources are also leading to a shift in the ethylene/propylene production balance that could impact the availability of propylene for downstream markets in the future. Furthermore, if crude oil prices rise again, raw material costs for acrylate resins will rise as well.

Both established manufacturers and start-up companies are hoping to find cost-effective, fermentation-based routes for the production of biobased acrylic acid. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $1.5 million in funding to Cargill and Novozymes for the development of a route to acrylic acid based on 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3HPA) produced via fermentation of sugar. A commercial process is anticipated by 2013. Battelle (The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) is also looking at the synthesis of acrylic acid via conversion of an intermediate produced through fermentation. In this case, the intermediate is lactic acid, which can be dehydrated to form acrylic acid.

The process, being scaled-up by startup company OPX Biotechnologies, involves direct fermentation of sugars, biomass, and other feedstocks to acrylic acid. The firm has successfully operated at the pilot plant level and a demonstration facility should be operational in 2011, with expectations for a commercial facility also in 2013.

In yet another approach to biobased acrylic acid, Nippon Shokubai has developed a catalyst for the gas phase dehydration of glycerin, which is formed as a byproduct of biodiesel production. This reaction produces acrolein, which can then be converted to acrylic acid. A pilot plant is slated for construction in early 2011.

Succinic acid, while a more specialized monomer for coatings applications, can be used for the production of surfactants and biodegradable polymers and solvents and can also be used in the synthesis of various additives and resins. In addition, in 2004, the U.S. DOE identified succinic acid as a primary target for biobased production because it is naturally produced by living cells and has many applications in numerous markets. Market research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that biobased succinic acid will not only replace its conventional counterpart, but also similar petrochemical-based compounds used as building blocks for polymers or other derivatives because of its natural origin.

Production of conventional succinic acid involves oxidation of butane. Fermentation processes, depending on the specifics, can consume sugars and other biomass. In addition, the transformation involves consumption of carbon dioxide, which provides an added benefit from a carbon footprint standpoint.

Companies well along the development path include BASF and Purac, a leading producer of lactic acid and derivatives; Bioamber, a 50/50 joint venture between DNP Green Technology and Agro Industrie Recherches et Developpments (ARD), an R&D center for several agricultural cooperatives based in the Champagne Ardenne region of France; DSM and Roquette, a leading starch and starch-derivatives company; and Myriant Technologes, a startup that has already successfully commercialized a fermentation process for D-(-)-lactic acid.

BASF and Purac announced an agreement to combine their separate succinic acid fermentation technologies in September 2009, with a demonstration plant targeted for the second quarter of 2010.


In January 2010, Bioamber announced the successful start-up and commissioning of its 2000 tonne demonstration plant for production of renewable succinic acid from wheat-derived glucose. The company does not intend to produce on a commercial scale, but rather is developing a range of technologies for production of succinic acid and derivatives such as esters and 1,4-butanediol and polyesters that it will license to third parties.

DSM and Roquette formalized their agreement to jointly develop biobased succinic acid only in June 2010, announcing formation of the 50/50 joint venture company Reverdia V.o.f., which will be headquartered in The Netherlands (subject to regulatory approvals). The companies also reported advances in their process that lead to production of succinic acid without the formation of any waste salts. A demonstration plant producing several hundred tonnes/year using their technology has been operating since 2009. Reverdia will focus on derivatives such as 1,4 butanediol (BDO), polyurethane resins, and biopolymers such as polybutylene succinate (PBS) for paints and coating, automotive, and textile applications among others. Full scale commercial production is anticipated for 2011/2012.

In December 2009, Myriant Technologies received a $50 million award from the U.S. DOE for its planned biobased succinic acid plant in Louisiana. Construction of the facility, which will have a capacity of 30 million lb and will be the world's largest biobased succinic acid plant, will begin in September 2010, with start-up expected in 2011. The company's process will use local sorghum as the feedstock.

Myriant's ultimate strategy is to combine production of biobased specialty chemicals and biofuels in integrated biorefineries based on its proprietary cellulosic technology and microbial platform. In addition to succinic acid, the company can use its fermentation technology to produce a variety of specialty chemical including lactic acids, 3HP, and propanediol.

To be successful, all of these companies developing routes to biobased building blocks for the synthesis of coating additives and resins must ensure that the economics of their processes are competitive with existing petrochemical-based routes. Because these biobased compounds are identical to their petrochemically derived counterparts, they do not provide novel functionality or reactivity. Being green won't earn a premium.

Given that there are so many companies investing real money in fermentation routes to raw materials like acrylic and succinic acids, it is likely that they have indeed found a way to be price competitive. If so, the paint and coatings manufacturers, their ingredient suppliers, and their customers will all be winners along with the producers of these renewable building blocks and derivatives.
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Publication:JCT CoatingsTech
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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