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Biobased Chemicals

Trillium raises $10.6 million for biobased acrylonitrile, acetonitrile

Catalytic process uses glycerin instead of propylene as a feedstock

by Craig Bettenhausen
December 5, 2022


A Lego person builds a tower with blocks.
Credit: Shutterstock
Acrylonitrile is a starting material for the plastic used to make Lego, as well as a wide range of other materials.

The start-up Trillium Renewable Chemicals has closed a $10.6 million series A funding round that the firm says it will use to build a demonstration-scale plant for its catalytic biobased acrylonitrile process.

The distribution company Helm and the chemical maker Hyosung Advanced Materials participated in the round. Capricorn Partners, which helped fund Trillium’s 2021 spin-off from the nonprofit Southern Research Institute, also invested.

The firm’s technology is built around catalysts that produce acrolein by dehydrating glycerin, an inexpensive byproduct of soap and biodiesel production. Acrolein is then combined with ammonia and oxygen to yield acrylonitrile and an acetonitrile side product, a reaction called ammoxidation.

Glycerin has chemical advantages over the petroleum-derived propylene that acrylonitrile is normally made from, says Trillium CEO Corey Tyree. The oxygen content of glycerin makes for a more direct path to acrolein, which is also an intermediate in the petroleum route, leading to a lower heat of reaction and avoiding the conditions that create the toxic byproduct hydrogen cyanide.

Related Southern Research patents also describe fermentation methods that start with sugars and biomass, but Tyree says glycerin is a better starting material because it eliminates the energy cost and technology risk that a fermentation process would bring. Dehydration and ammoxidation are established chemical technologies with known scaling methodologies, he says.

“We have enough challenges without having to be the first person to scale a technology,” he says.

Both Hyosung and Solvay, which signed a commercial development agreement with Trillium in January, are major players in the market for carbon fiber, which is often made using acrylonitrile, and Tyree expects most of Trillium’s product to go into that application at first. He says, however, that the firm is watching opportunities in the many other materials that use acrylonitrile and acetonitrile, including acrylics and the acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic used in Lego and many other consumer and construction goods.



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