Agribusiness giant Cargill says technology developed by Procter & Gamble will breathe new life into its years-long effort to produce acrylic acid from corn dextrose. Cargill is one of several companies that have worked unsuccessfully for over a decade to scale up fermentation routes to the intermediate.
Cargill first partnered with fermentation expert Novozymes in 2008 in a project to produce the acrylic acid precursor 3-hydroxypropionic acid from sugar. BASF joined the project in 2012 but pulled out in 2015. Dow and Evonik have also tried their hands at biobased acrylic acid.
But at P&G, scientists sidestepped the need for a new fermentation process. Instead, they crafted a route based on lactic acid, which Cargill already produces from corn at a giant plant in Blair, Nebraska, mainly as a raw material for the polymer polylactic acid.
P&G converts lactic acid to acrylic acid with a dehydration catalyst made of metal-containing phosphate salts, according to a P&G patent. Cargill has an exclusive license to use the technology, which won P&G the American Chemical Society’s 2020 Award for Affordable Green Chemistry.
One of the largest markets for acrylic acid is superabsorbent polymers used in diapers. Strong consumer demand for more sustainable diapers prompted P&G—the maker of Pampers—to develop the biobased chemistry and look for a manufacturing partner, says Jill Zullo, Cargill’s vice president for bioindustrials.
Cargill’s low-cost lactic acid makes for a nice marriage, Zullo says. “They wanted to know who they can have confidence in for the scale up, the technology, and the economics.” Cargill acknowledges it will take several years of development before parents find diapers with the new ingredient on store shelves.
Finding a market for a greener, but likely more pricey, version of acrylic acid has historically been a challenge, says Ron Cascone, leader of biorenewable chemical solutions at the consulting firm Nexant. But today’s parents have grown up in an environmentally conscious era. Plus, he adds, “Cargill produces oceans of lactic acid, so if this doesn’t work, nothing will.”