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Firms Advance Chemicals From Renewable Resources

More chemicals may be made as coproducts of the biofuels industry

by Alexander H. Tullo
May 7, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 19

A number of specialty chemical companies are moving forward with plans to take advantage of the growing popularity of biomass-based fuels by making commodity and specialty chemicals an offshoot of the biofuels industry.

Huntsman Corp. says it will scale up a process to make propylene glycol from the glycerin that is made as a coproduct of biodiesel manufacturing. The company will make the propylene glycol at its process development facility in Conroe, Texas, and will have product commercially available by next year.

Biodiesel production involves the transesterification of vegetable oils or tallow into methyl esters. The process yields about one part glycerin—also known as 1,2,3-propanetriol—for every 10 parts of biodiesel. Increasing biodiesel production around the world has led to a surplus of cheap glycerin on the market that has potential as a chemical feedstock.

"We expect the rapid growth in biodiesel production worldwide to create a surplus of glycerin and, with it, an opportunity," says Dave Parkin, vice president of Huntsman Performance Intermediates.

Propylene glycol, used in polyurethanes and aircraft deicing, is normally made from propylene, a petrochemical.

Dow Chemical recently announced that it is commercializing its own process to make propylene glycol from glycerin. It is also planning a plant in China to make the epoxy resin raw material epichlorohydrin from glycerin. Solvay recently completed an epichlorohydrin plant in France that is based on glycerin and is planning a larger scale plant in Thailand. Agricultural processors Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill are also investigating glycerin-based routes to propylene glycol.

Just this week, specialty chemicals firm Vertellus Specialties announced it is working with the U.K.'s Cardiff University to develop specialty chemicals from glycerin. "The chemical structure and increasing abundance of glycerin makes it an excellent platform chemical for us to use," says Vertellus CEO Timothy Zappala.

Meanwhile, Rohm and Haas and Ceres, which is developing high-energy crops for cellulosic ethanol production, are launching a three-year collaboration that will explore using crops to produce methacrylate monomers, used to make paints, acrylic sheet, and other products. The collaboration is being funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.??

Ceres biochemists say two metabolic pathways in plants it is investigating yield methacrylate esters. These are similar to methyl methacrylate but aren't available in the right forms or sufficient quantities to be extracted. Ceres says it may be able to alter the way the compounds are produced in the plants so they can be extracted before the plant biomass is processed to make ethanol.



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