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Biobased Chemicals

Succinic acid, once a biobased chemical star, is barely being made

The fermentation-derived molecule, conceived in an era of high oil prices, became a victim of the shale revolution

by Michael McCoy
March 20, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 12

 

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The recent news that DSM and Roquette are dissolving their succinic acid joint venture may be the final chapter for a product that was once going to change the chemical industry but turned out to be an expensive disappointment.

The joint venture, Reverdia, is one of four projects launched about a decade ago to make succinic acid from biomass. Chemical companies have long synthesized the four-carbon carboxylic acid in modest amounts as an intermediate for dyes and pharmaceuticals. The goal of the new projects was to use biotechnology to ferment carbohydrates into succinic acid at a cost low enough to open up large-volume polymer markets.

BioAmber may have been the most ambitious of the projects. The company raised about $80 million in a 2013 stock offering and put the funds into building a succinic acid plant in Sarnia, Ontario. However, saddled with a heavy debt load and few customers, it closed the plant and filed for bankruptcy last year.

In contrast, Reverdia’s plant in Cassano, Italy will continue to be operated by Roquette. DSM, the developer of the venture’s production technology, will license it to any other takers. Atul Thakrar, head of DSM’s biobased products and services business, says the technology makes “the most sustainable and competitive biosuccinic acid on the market today.”

It may also be the only biosuccinic acid on the market today. An official with PTTGC Innovation America says its succinic acid facility, opened in 2013 in Lake Providence, Louisiana, has been idle for the past 18 months.

The fourth facility, a joint venture between BASF and Corbion that opened in 2014 in Montmeló, Spain, also isn’t currently running. Andrej Brejc, managing director of the venture, says the plant “can be made available to run in campaigns.”

Cenan Ozmeral, the former CEO of Myriant, which built the Lake Providence facility, says the technology behind biosuccinic acid is sound but that the industry couldn’t compete when a flood of shale oil and gas brought down prices for petrochemicals.

When the succinic acid plants were conceived, oil cost more than $100 per barrel and chemical executives were concerned about the future of their industry, Ozmeral says. When the plants opened, oil cost half that much and succinic acid was an afterthought.

“They were going to change the world, but the world changed ahead of them,” Ozmeral says.

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