Products will be cost competitive with conventional polyols
Report by Liz White, UTI editor
Is this the future for polyurethane raw materials? Reverdia will soon start to make succinic acid - for use in making polyester polyols - in an Italian biorefinery, by a yeast-fermentation process.
The newly formed joint venture between Royal DSM and Roquette Frres feels the environmental credentials of its process are very attractive long term, with competitive pricing, particularly taking account of its "green" benefits, according to Marieke Smidt, marketing manager with Reverdia.
Reverdia is actively promoting its Biosuccinium material to the PU market, and has competitors in a similar position.
But Reverdia benefits from parent bodies with much experience in making bio-based products.
"That helps us create reliable supply customers," she said. Also it allows Reverdia to focus on customers rather than on having to attract investors from the capital market, Smidt added, in a 19 April interview at UTECH Europe.
Reverdia's technology also differs from that of its main competitors. It uses yeast rather than bacterial fermentation, Smidt stressed, and its feedstock is a non-edible, non-food source.
The advantage of yeast is its environmental footprint, explained Smidt. Yeast technology is simple, direct and stable and doesn't produce salts. "With bacterial processes, you have to first produce salts, which must then be converted into the acid," Smidt pointed out. That extra step requires equipment, chemicals, energy and extra costs, adding to the eco-burden.
Replacing adipic acid
One outlet for bio-succinic acid is in making aliphatic polyester polyols, "where of course adipic acid is the conventional chemical used today," Smidt said.
Richard Janssen, manager of Reverdia's Biosuccinium business, said the material is "a near drop-in alternative, rather than a direct replacement. ... Some reformulation is needed, but not a lot."
Customers for Biosuccinium are those currently using adipic acid to make polyester polyols. Often these are integrated polyurethane producers, such as Bayer and BASF, Janssen pointed out.
"We are making a splash in the PU business at the moment. ... it is an important one," Smidt stressed - with many opportunities. Other potential uses lie in making polybutylene succinate (PBS), coatings resins, and plasticisers.
Other bio-succinic acid producers such as Bioamber and Myriant are talking about using it to make butanediol (BDO), but Reverdia sees that as "a longer-term option, because for BDO, the economics are quite challenging."
Larger scale plant needed
Reverdia is currently using a small plant in France to optimise its technology, and for sampling and commercial development. It is also is spending "multi-million Euros," to set up a 10-kilotonnes-per-annum plant at Roquette's site in Cassano Spinola, Italy, scheduled to be operational by the end of Q3 2012, with product available in Q4.
Reverdia aims to build a much larger plant, at a yet-to-be-decided location. "For economies of scale we need a larger plant and we also see a potential market much larger than that," said Smidt.
At Roquette, the facility is integrated into an existing fermentation plant, so the feedstock is already there, and the logistics are in place.
Smidt sees this is another differentiator: Roquette has direct access to the non-edible corn feedstock. "What we use in future may depend on the location of our next plant."
Smidt pointed out that land and water for crops are scarce resources, so in a sense anyone making bio-products is in competition with food resources.
The Copernicus Institute carried out a lifecycle analysis, with a broader scope - human health, environmental footprint - than just carbon footprint. But she noted that the latter is what customers are most interested in.
In comparison with adipic acid, users save 8 kg of CO2kg, a figure which Janssen said "opens the door, our customer finds that interesting."
Next generation feedstocks may be non-edible plant parts "such as lignin," and Reverdia will have to repeat the LCA, said Smidt.
Janssen pointed out that the Roquette facility is a bioefinery: "In Italy they crack corn, like oil is cracked," getting many components out, for food, and sorbitol as a starter for polyurethanes, for example. Then they add value by using all the cracked parts, as Reverdia is doing for Biosuccinium. Janssen said the biorefinery has no waste - anything left is used in a biogas installation.
Discussing prices for Biosuccinium, Smidt said Reverdia's business case is built on being cost-competitive versus oil-derived succinic and against adipic acid. But she pointed out that adipic acid plants are huge, depreciated, and have been debottlenecked many times.
"We believe that in the beginning there is a value for the more sustainable profile, and we are not looking to leave this value on the table - it is not negligible," she said.
Reverdia also believes it can provide more stable pricing than offered by petroleum-derived products. That will be appreciated by customers, Smidt said.
Janssen said Reverdia offers the industry differentiation, so that if prices soar for oil and oil-derived products "then we offer alternatives."
And despite some price volatility in natural products, Smidt said "We believe long term the pricing situation must develop in our favour."
Also "a lot of optimisation is under way, not only in our process, but in the whole agricultural process," she added. "Everyone sees that you need to make developments to make this bio-economy work."
Smidt and Janssen said the big global brands are committing to bio-products. "They feel an obligation to do this, and their interest flows back into the big brands in the PU sector," Smidt concluded.