Biobased materials hit the big time

Companies making polymers from biomass noted substantial progress in 2016

Alexander H. Tullo

With oil prices half what they were just a couple of years ago, 2016 would seem like an unlikely breakout year for biobased chemicals. But several firms in the field hit major commercial milestones over the past 12 months.

09449-cover44-fdca-250Avantium and BASF formed a joint venture to build a half-billion-dollar furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) plant in Antwerp, Belgium, using Avantium’s catalysts to make FDCA out of sugar.

FDCA is reacted with ethylene glycol to make polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a polyester meant to replace polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in soda bottles and other packages. Avantium has been collaborating with Coca-Cola and Danone for years. In September, Avantium and Toyobo said they would make PEF polymers and films together in Japan.

The material won’t have to compete with oil-derived PET on environmental appeal alone. PEF has 10 times better oxygen barrier properties than PET, which could allow for practical plastic beer bottles.

This year, DuPont and agricultural giant ADM unveiled a collaboration to develop a similar polymer, polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate, made from the biobased chemicals furan dicarboxylic methyl ester and 1,3 propanediol. DuPont and ADM plan a demonstration facility in Decatur, Ill.

Novomer scored a huge gain when it sold its polyols unit to Saudi Aramco in a deal potentially worth $100 million. The polyols aren’t biobased, but by using carbon dioxide as a raw material, they do lock in a fair amount of greenhouse gas.

Moreover, the company will use the sale proceeds to develop a plant that makes acrylic acid via a biobased route. Its process begins with ethylene oxide made from ethanol and carbon monoxide possibly derived from agricultural waste.

Anellotech is taking petroleum-based chemicals head-on with its process to turn lignocellulosic biomass into the aromatic chemicals benzene, toluene, and xylene. This year, the company commissioned a pilot plant in Silsbee, Texas. It also received some pretty big backing, including investments from a Toyota unit and the Japanese beverage maker Suntory.

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