Issue Date: February 8, 2016
Anellotech Advancing Bio-Aromatics
The scores of companies developing biobased routes to industrial chemicals are all ambitious. They have to be if they think they can compete with products that have been entrenched for decades. But few dream as big as Anellotech.
The Pearl River, N.Y.-based start-up is developing a way to turn lignocellulosic biomass into the aromatic building blocks benzene, toluene, and xylene, known collectively as BTX. If successful, the technology could help bring the world biobased versions of important aromatic-derived chemicals such as polyester, nylon, epoxy, and polyurethane.
Anellotech’s technology is based on the work of George W. Huber, done while he was a professor of chemical engineering at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Despite this academic pedigree, nothing about the technology—other than the feedstock—would seem exotic to chemical makers.
Cellulosic biomass is ground into a powder and fed into a fluidized bed reactor. Pyrolysis breaks the organic material into a gas composed of oxygenated hydrocarbons such as alcohols, esters, and ketones. A ZSM-5 zeolite catalyst then converts the gases into a stream of BTX.
Charles Sorensen, Anellotech’s vice president of R&D and engineering, points out that the chemistry isn’t unlike the ZSM-5-catalyzed conversion of methanol into gasoline. “The catalyst has a tremendous ability to convert oxygenates into aromatic and other hydrocarbons,” he says.
Oxygen leaves the reactor in the form of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and water. A regeneration unit burns off the coke that gets deposited on the catalyst. This combustion supplies enough heat to power the reaction and generate supplemental electricity.
The reactor’s feedstock diet can include pine, corn stover, sugarcane bagasse, and palm trunks. David Sudolsky, Anellotech’s chief executive officer, says his company is homing in on wood for now because it is so plentiful. “Wood is already collected for the pulp and paper industry, which is on the decline,” he says.
In 2011, Sudolsky told attendees at a conference in New York City that the process yields 0.5 tons of product for every 2 tons of feedstock. But he won’t give any current figures. “We like to keep our competitors in the dark,” he says. “We do have a viable process.”
The proof, Sudolsky says, is Anellotech’s backers. Last year, the company entered long-term collaboration agreements with Johnson Matthey and IFP Energies Nouvelles. Matthey is working with Anellotech to improve catalysis. IFP is helping scale up the process; its Axens subsidiary will market the technology.
Unlike a lot of biobased chemical start-ups, Anellotech would rather license the technology than build its own plants.
“The skills you need to be an owner-operator are substantial,” Sudolsky says. Plus, unlike start-up companies that are introducing new-to-the-world chemicals such as farnesene, Anellotech is pursuing a well-established market.
In fact, the world is clamoring for biobased BTX. Most famously, Coca-Cola is on the hunt for renewable purified terephthalic acid (PTA), a xylene derivative that makes up about 70% of the mass of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles. Coke’s PlantBottle already contains ethylene glycol derived from biobased ethanol, and the firm is working with the start-ups Virent, Gevo, and Avantium to come up with alternatives to petrochemical PTA.
Anellotech recently disclosed receiving more than $15 million in support from Suntory, an owner of brands such as Orangina and Schweppes. The Japanese company is already using biobased ethylene glycol in some PET bottles.
In addition to Suntory, Anellotech has a confidential backer that has plunked down $7 million and pledged an additional $3 million this year. Sudolsky will only say the secret partner is a strategic investor interested in the BTX supply chain and that it is a potential funder of the first commercial plant.
But first, Anellotech will need to get encouraging results out of its new pilot plant. Built in Canada by the engineering firm Zeton, the facility is being trucked to Silsbee, Texas, home of the custom chemical manufacturer South Hampton Resources. The 25-meter-tall unit will process about a half-metric-ton of feedstock into BTX per day. Should the pilot facility verify the process, Suntory, Anellotech, and other partners will proceed with studies on a commercial plant.
Whether that first plant will take root in the marketplace will depend largely on oil prices, which have tumbled over the past year. “When the oil price is $30, that is not good,” observes William Tittle, a principal with the chemical consulting firm Nexant.
However, that criticism applies to everybody developing alternative routes to aromatics, not just Anellotech, Tittle points out. A few years ago, he says, Nexant conducted a study of all the alternatives, including those from Coke’s partners, and Anellotech’s came out on top.
In any case, low oil prices don’t seem to have chased off Anellotech’s investors. “Money talks,” Sudolsky says. “People are writing checks now.”
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