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Cargill and Helm form joint venture to build $300 million biobased 1,4-butanediol plant in Iowa

The firms say the process, licensed from Genomatica, emits 93% less greenhouse gas than petroleum-feedstock methods

by Craig Bettenhausen
June 10, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 22


Two lower-body mannequins wearing spandex pants.
Credit: Shutterstock
1,4-butanediol is a starting material for spandex, among other applications.

The agriculture giant Cargill has formed a joint venture with the chemical distributor Helm to make biobased alternatives to petroleum-derived chemicals. The first outing for the venture, which the partners are calling Qore, will be a $300 million 1,4-butanediol plant at Cargill’s corn-refining facility in Eddyville, Iowa.

The partners licensed the technology from California-based Genomatica, which developed engineered Escherichia coli that produce butanediol from sugar. Novamont previously licensed the Genomatica technology to build a plant in Italy that can make 30,000 metric tons (t) per year.

Cargill’s vice president for bioindustrials, Jill Zullo, says Qore’s 65,000 t plant will use process improvements Genomatica has made since the Italian plant opened in 2016, along with wind energy and sustainable agriculture, to achieve a carbon footprint for its biobased product that is 93% smaller than that of conventional butanediol.

BASF, the largest global producer of petroleum-derived butanediol, also licensed Genomatica’s process but has not announced plants for using it.

Zullo says customers in packaging and apparel are willing to pay more for sustainable material. About half the global output of butanediol is dehydrated into tetrahydrofuran and then used to make the stretchy fiber spandex. Both tetrahydrofuran and butanediol are also used as solvents, including for making plastics and polyurethane.

Cargill will operate the plant, which will employ 40–50 people when it starts up in 2024, Zullo says.

Tiffany Hua, an analyst at Lux Research, says Cargill should have no trouble finding customers for its biobased 1,4-butanediol. “Sports apparel and athleisure are large markets moving towards more sustainable materials where still a majority of spandex and elastane materials are petrochemical-based,” Hua says in a commentary.

Qore builds on Cargill’s existingindustrial biotechefforts. The company has a large fermentation plant making lactic acid, primarily for the polymer polylactic acid. In 2020, Cargill licensed a process from Procter & Gamble that converts lactic acid into acrylic acid with an eye toward making biobased polyacrylic acid, the superabsorbent polymer used in diapers. Zullo says Cargill is moving forward on acrylic acid but did not provide details.

In addition to learning from the success of Novamont’s facility, Cargill has taken lessons from other attempts to bring biobased succinic acid to market, Zullo says. Several firms invested tens of millions of dollars in the intermediate starting around 2009, and most of those efforts failed, in part because few chemical processors had mature plans to use it for anything.

Zullo says biobased butanediol is a better bet in three main ways. First, Genomatica’s process converts dextrose from corn directly into an intermediate that industry already uses at large scale. Second, Cargill is working from the get-go with a chemical distributor, Helm, which has customers that have been asking for a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-derived supply.

And third, the pandemic accelerated consumer trends toward sustainability. During lockdown, Zullo says, people saw dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice and skies clearing above major cities. “I think there was a real connection to, ‘Wow, climate change is actually something that is man made,’ ” and to the realization that our choices have an impact, she adds.

Cargill established Qore with expansion into other biobased chemicals in mind, according to Zullo. “This is our first big announcement of an investment this size,” she says. “There’s more to come. The time is now.”


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