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Advancing Biomaterials

Cost Reduction: Chemical firms target alternative fuels and feedstocks

by Marc S. Reisch
March 15, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 11

Credit: Bio Architecture Lab
Seaweed could be a new source for isobutyl alcohol fuel.
Credit: Bio Architecture Lab
Seaweed could be a new source for isobutyl alcohol fuel.

Four major chemical companies have undertaken initiatives to advance biofuels and biomaterials. Their projects continue the industry’s exploration of new feedstocks that would decouple it from petroleum and natural gas.

In two instances, companies are using algae to generate alternative fuels. In the first case, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) will fund half the cost of a $17.7 million project involving DuPont and biofuel and chemical specialist Bio Architecture Lab to use macroalgae—better known as seaweed—to produce the fuel isobutyl alcohol. Ultimately, DuPont and partner BP hope to commercialize seaweed-based isobutyl alcohol through their existing transportation fuels joint venture, Butamax Advanced Biofuels.

In the second algae-based project, Honeywell subsidiary UOP will demonstrate a project to capture carbon dioxide and turn it into fuel. DOE will provide $1.5 million to capture CO2 from exhaust stacks at a Honeywell caprolactam plant in Hopewell, Va., and deliver it to an algae cultivation system. Oil extracted from the algae will be converted to biofuel.

“There has been an upsurge of interest in algae over the last few years,” says Samhitha Udupa, a research associate at market research firm Lux Research. “It’s the next hot feedstock.” That interest also underscores chemical firms’ efforts to seek alternatives to volatile petroleum-based fuels and feedstocks, she points out.

France-based Arkema is also looking at biomaterials as an alternative feedstock. In its case, the firm intends to explore the use of glycerin, a by-product of the process that converts vegetable oil into biodiesel, as a raw material for acrylic acid. It has set up a three-year, $15 million program including academic partners at its R&D center in Carling, France, where it also operates a propylene-based acrylic acid plant.

Finally, Albemarle will participate in the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, an academic, government, and industry initiative to develop infrastructure-compatible, biobased fuels.



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