NEW YORK (Aug. 11, 12:55 p.m. ET) — There are plenty of contenders who say they have demonstrated the ability to make non-petroleum-based building blocks for terephthalic acid — which would unlock the door to making 100 percent PET bottles from renewable resources.
But the question that still remains is which of the nearly dozen companies that have emerged in that marketplace will be able to demonstrate the economic viability of their process and develop partnerships to bring their technology to the forefront.
“Renewable PET is a big part of the initial bioplastics opportunity,” said William Tittle, principal and strategy director for chemicals at San Francisco-based consulting firm Nexant Inc. “But the big players — Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — will pick a limited number of people to work with. So the ability to be competitive with existing feedstocks will be critical.”
“There is incredible hype around several companies who have said that they can make terephthalic acid from renewable resources,” agreed Jim Lunt, founder and managing director of Jim Lunt and Associates LLC, a technology commercialization firm in Wayzata, Minn. “You have at least five to 10 companies who believe that they have a technology that is viable to make 100 percent renewable [purified terephthalic acid] — which constitutes 70 percent of the PET bottle.” The other 30 percent is ethylene glycol.
“Companies that were relatively unknown are coming to the front because it's a red-hot tomato right now to make renewable PTA or renewable paraxylene, the building block of PTA,” said Lunt in an interview.
“The question is who can really make it and be cost-competitive, because in the end it is going to be about who has the best price,” he said. “And I don't think anyone can tell you right now who has a process that is economically viable.”
In addition to the drivers creating rapidly growing interest in renewable-based, drop-in chemicals to replace petroleum-based commodity chemicals, the PET market has another driver: soft drink and beverage giants Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo.
“PepsiCo is saying that they have unlocked the code for making 100 percent renewable PET,” said Lunt. “That puts pressure on Coca-Cola, which is accelerating its [30 percent renewable] PlantBottle with Heinz and in India.”
Several of the renewable PET or PET building-block contenders — most of which are three to four years away from commercial development — in June were at the Bioplastek conference, which was held in New York and organized by Schotland Business Research Inc.
Virent Energy Systems
Virent, based in Madison, Wis., was touting its BioForm PX paraxylene made from agricultural products such as beet sugars, corn, sugar cane, corn stalks and pine tree scraps.
“We have developed a bio-based feedstock for paraxylene that will enable 100 percent renewable content for PET and for fibers,” said Kieran Furlong, commercial chemicals manager at Virent, which announced in June that it is making renewable paraxylene at a 10,000-gallon-per-year demonstration plant in Madison.
“We are using a chemical catalyst technology in a two-step process and are focused on developing something that fits into the existing infrastructure,” said Furlong. “We want to have a commercial plant commissioned by 2015 or earlier.”
The company also wants to move toward using “biomass feedstock,” he said. “It is technologically feasible right now to make [paraxylene] from cellulosic materials, but the economics of using that are still to be determined. We have to prove it is economically feasible.”
Similarly, renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company Gevo announced at the Bioplastek conference that one of its potential customers, Japanese chemical manufacturer Toray Industries Inc., had successfully produced 100 percent renewable PET using paraxylene made from Gevo's 100 percent renewable isobutanol.
“We can use a variety of feedstocks. We are feedstock-agnostic,” said President and CEO Christopher Ryan in an interview. “We believe that a low-cost, renewable isobutanol that fits into the existing ethylene infrastructure is a gateway building block for a variety of chemicals such as paraxylene.”
Gevo's process uses an integrated fermentation technology that converts the sugars in biomass into isobutanol. The Englewood, Colo., company has a 1 million-gallon-per-year demonstration ethylene plant in St. Joseph, Mo., where it has made the renewable isobutanol and paraxylene, and expects to begin commercial production in late 2012 at a facility in Lucerne, Minn., that it purchased last year.
“We are putting together plans for a pilot plant that we expect to start up in less than a year, and are working with an engineering company to design a process to produce paraxylene from isobutanol that we can scale up,” Ryan said.
“There is so much interest in bio-based chemicals. The market demand is very strong,” said Ryan. “It is a matter of meeting the economics needed because the name of the game is to deliver a cost-competitive renewable chemical. Our core focus is making isobutanol. We'll work with others to convert it.”
Ryan believes renewable PET will be used predominantly where PET is used today — in food packaging, beverage containers, automotive parts and non-woven fibers. “Because our isobutanol can be used in a variety of markets, it reduces our risk and we'll be gaining economies of scales and building a market for renewable PET as soon as possible.”
It also meshes with the company's overall strategy to retrofit ethanol plants to make isobutanol for second-generation biofuels. “There are a lot of synergies between our bio-based chemicals and the other products we're making,” he said.
Draths, based in Lansing, Mich., is also making bio-based terephthalic acid, but its overall strategy is to produce bio-based monomers such as PET, nylon 6, nylon 6/6, and urethanes for fiber applications.
“We want to be a monomer producer, build and operate the first plant and then add plants or license the technology to others,” said Allen Julian, business development director for the 6-year-old company, which focuses on making renewable-based polymers.
To make its Bio-PTA, Draths uses synthetic biology and a fermentation process to make muconic acid as the building block.
“Our two core components are the fermentation technology and our synthetic biology knowledge,” said Julian. “Our goal is to have a 1,000-kilogram pilot plant by 2012, a 10-million-kg demonstration plant between 2013 and 2014, and a 100 million-kg commercial plant by 2015.”
The company projects a 56 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional petrochemical processes, said Julian. “We expect our Bio-PTA costs to be fully competitive with petrochemical alternatives.”
It is also developing bio-based caprolactum to make nylon 6, and bio-based hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid to make nylon 6/6 and polyurethane. Caprolactum is further along in development, as the company is still seeking partners to make HMDA and adipic acid.
“To get into the marketplace, the key is to get everybody involved and create value for all supply-chain partners,” Julian said. “The biomass providers, container manufacturers, brand owners, the converters and consumer-product-goods companies all have to be a part of this. That is where we are spending the vast majority of our time. Innovation doesn't take place until everyone can make money. Now is the time for biopolymers, but none of us can do it alone.”
Founder, President and CEO David Sudolsky isn't bashful about laying out the markets the New York company is aiming to penetrate. He has his eye on the global $100 billion market for benzene, toluene and xylenes, as well as paraxylenes for PET, the $150 billion ethylene market and $100 billion polypropylene market.
Using a process developed by the Huber research group at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Anellotech is producing lab-level quantities of BTX chemicals by converting biomass to a BTX mixture that can be sold to petrochemical companies for processing in existing separation units, or distilled by Anellotech and sold directly into the market.
‘We are making a mixed aromatics stream and a majority, or a substantial portion, can be converted to paraxylene,” said Sudolsky. “We are evaluating samples and are looking forward to making our first batch of PTA … in the next six months.”
The company is currently producing kilogram quantities of aromatics in its lab, but expects to be producing 1,000 pounds of aromatics and olefins by the end of 2012 in a demonstration plant. “We expect to have a commercial plant online in four years,” said Sudolsky.
“We have developed a low-cost process for making drop-in green chemicals from non-food feedstocks that can be used in an existing facility,” he said. “From end-to-end, low cost is built in.”
After the biomass is ground and dried, the company uses a proprietary catalyst to chemically produce the aromatics and olefins in a single fluidized bed reactor. “The process is highly feedstock-flexible,” said Sudolsky. “It is relatively feedstock-agnostic.
“This will enable BTX purchasers to backwards-integrate,” Sudolsky said. “It produces substantial cost savings vs. petroleum-derived aromatics. The costs today in the lab are one-fourth of current prices. A year from now, they will be one-fourth of current prices.”
Some of the other companies looking at making renewable PTA are Genomatica Inc. in San Diego; UOP LLC in Des Plaines, Ill.; Chemtex International Inc. in Wilmington, N.C.; Global Bioenergies SA in Evry, France; and global giant Saudi Basic Industries Corp., based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.