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Market outlook: Biobased solvents deliver safety

Market outlook: Biobased solvents deliver safety

Image: GFBiochemicals’ levulinic acid facility in Caserta, Italy

UK-based Green Biologics is targeting applications in household, industrial and institutional cleaning (HI&I) as well as coatings, inks and adhesives, and food extraction for its biobased n-butanol and acetone when it brings up its first commercial-scale production mid-next year.

The company is currently converting a 21m gallons/year bioethanol plant that it acquired at the end of last year, in Little Falls, Minnesota, to use its Clostridium-based fermentation and separation technologies to convert C6 and C5 sugars into n-butanol and acetone.

The facility, now named Central Minnesota Renewables, will provide commercial scale quantities of the two chemicals, building on pilot and demonstration-sized facilities based in Columbus, Ohio, and Emmetsburg, Iowa, respectively. Green Biologics has also produced test quantities in China in 2012 and 2014.


CLEANER AND SAFER

Dr Lee Speight, business development analyst at the company, believes the biobased production route holds significant benefits over petrochemical routes to n-butanol and acetone, as the products are free from traditional impurities and thus offer users safer 
ingredients with a renewables pedigree.

To take the products to market, he explains, Green Biologics is collaborating with chemical partners to produce suitable derivatives that can be used in cleaning and coating products, etc.

“Our products are molecularly identical to petrochemical n-butanol and acetone, but have a performance advantage in terms of safety. There are no aldehydes, isobutanol or benzene/phenol impurities in our products, which offers customers both safety and regulatory advantages. The key demand from the market is performance. Green is good to have but is just not enough – for cleaners, performance in terms of safety and price is critical.”
Green Biologics’ renewable products are produced through selective fermentation of C5 and C6 sugars by proprietary Clostridium biocatalysts and have up to an 85% lower carbon footprint than petroleum-based alternatives. As the renewable n-butanol and 
acetone and their derivatives are chemically equivalent to the petroleum-based products they replace, little or no reformulation effort is required, says the company.

Green Biologics is actively collaborating to chemically synthesise the two platform chemicals into higher value derivatives, 
including ethylene glycol butyl ether (EGBE), a workhorse cleaning solvent in HI&I markets, as well as isopropyl alcohol (IPA), a powerful oil, grease and stain remover.

It will offer n-butanol under the Butachem trade name. It is a four-carbon primary alcohol used as an additive and solvent for a variety of household and industrial cleaning applications. n-Butanol is a powerful paint and stain remover and is an intermediate in the production of butyl glycol ethers and butyl acetate, both used as specialty solvents in HI&I cleaning applications.

Additionally, says Speight, n-butanol is a HAPS-compliant solvent, exhibits markedly low toxicity and is readily biodegradable.

Its trade name for bio-acetone is Renewa-Tone. The three-carbon symmetrical ketone is a highly valued cleaning solvent in a myriad of applications. Acetone is a volatile organic compound (VOC)-exempt solvent, allowing for use in many applications without the restrictions of other more hazardous volatile chemicals.

Common applications include nail polish removers and paint thinners. Additionally, acetone serves as a platform chemical for other cleaning ingredients such as isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and various ketones (MIBK, MIAK, MAK).

Speight’s ideal approach is for Green Biologics to partner with companies with other biobased materials to produce 100% biobased products. He points to the potential to react the n-butanol with biobased succinic acid to give a range of 100% renewable monoesters for surfactant and diesters, such as dibutyl succinate, for solvent use. These have the added benefit of being VOC exempt, he adds.

Speight also looks to the potential availability of biobased ethylene oxide and the use of glucaric acid to make even more commercially useful derivatives for use in the HI&I market. Biobased lactic acid is another useful reactant, he adds.

“We do not intend to make the derivatives ourselves,” says Speight. “The key is to get our molecules into third-party hands and the hands of the formulators. We aim to work closely with producers of specialty chemicals to introduce 100% biobased high performance ingredients with competitive formulation in-use costs.”

So, while the Little Falls plant is re-engineered to make n-butanol and acetone instead of ethanol, Green Biologics is pressing ahead with its product development programme, talking to consumer brands and associations as then going to formulators with samples of derivatives for trials and testing.

Speight believes the consumer is looking primarily for safety in the ingredients and products used, as well as their green credentials. “People look at safety and cost and we believe we have a better product in this respect.” But, he says that schemes such as the US Department of Agriculture’s Bio Preferred Programme and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Designed for the Environment scheme are also driving awareness and demand for biobased products.

Without wanting to add to the certification explosion, Green Biologics is offering its products with the tag “GreenInside”, to alert purchasers of the product’s benefits in terms of reduced waste, energy and use of renewable ingredients.


LEVULINIC START OFFERS SURFACTANT PROMISE

GFBiochemicals levulinic acid plant in Caserta, Italy, is scheduled to come onstream this month with a capacity of 2,000 tonnes/year. As a platform chemical, levulinic acid is an option for formulating biobased detergents, says Marcel van Berkel, chief commercial officer at GFBiochemicals. “Levulinic acid-based ketals are used today in laundry and personal care detergents by leading natural detergent brands”, he adds.

GFBiochemicals has developed a cost-effective thermochemical conversion process that takes biomass and converts it into levulinic acid. The new facility makes the company the first commercial-scale producer of levulinic acid directly from biomass, without intermediate process steps.

A range of biomass can be used, including cellulosic waste. Formic acid, acetic acid and furfural are all value-added secondary chemicals. Char is also produced and can be used as an energy source for the process. The plant will ramp up to 10,000 tonnes/year by 2017.

Levulinic acid is claimed to have intrinsically superior properties owing to a combination of biomass utilisation rates, feedstock flexibility and CAPEX requirements when compared to other platform chemicals like bioethanol, isobutanol and succinic acid.

GFBiochemicals estimates the opportunity for levulinic acid in chemicals at over 2m tonnes/year, with a market value of more than $4bn/year.

 

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