Issue Date: August 27, 2012
BASF Joins Cargill And Novozymes On Process For Biobased Acrylic Acid
Three giants in chemicals, agricultural products, and industrial enzymes have partnered to commercialize a biological route to acrylic acid.
In a joint announcement, BASF, Cargill, and Novozymes say their target market is diapers and similar products that rely on superabsorbent polymers made from acrylic acid. Acrylic acid is also used to make detergents, paints, and adhesives. According to the three companies, the global market for acrylic acid is around 4.5 million tons and is worth $11 billion per year.
BASF is the world’s largest producer of acrylic acid. It makes the key monomer by oxidizing propylene derived from the refining of crude oil. Cargill and Novozymes have been working on renewable acrylic acid technology since 2008.
The collaboration between Novozymes and Cargill has focused on genetically engineering microbes to efficiently convert sugar into 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP), an alternative precursor to acrylic acid. BASF’s role in the enlarged collaboration will be to develop a process to convert 3-HP into acrylic acid.
This route is also being pursued by start-up OPX Biotechnologies, which is working with Dow Chemical to convert 3-HP into acrylic acid via catalytic dehydration. In April, OPX reported that it had scaled its production of 3-HP to a 3,000-L fermenter operated by Michigan Biotechnology Institute. Meanwhile, Myriant Technologies, best known for its plans to commercialize biobased succinic acid, says it will produce bio-acrylic acid in sample quantities this year.
Partnering with a major chemical firm is a good move, says Mark Morgan, global managing director of renewables for chemical consultancy IHS Chemicals. Regardless of the starting material, he says, producing acrylic acid is difficult because of the reactivity of the molecule.
In principle, making acrylic acid requires just a dehydration step, Morgan says. But, he stresses, producers often run into problems during purification, when polymers can form on equipment. “Certainly it is an advantage to have a major player in the acrylics industry, with a proven track record and its own interest in biotechnology. BASF as partner brings lots of potential benefits.”
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