Company initiatives

Global Bioenergies in bio-propylene

France-based Global Bioenergies (GBE) announced this week that it was able to  directly convert glucose to propylene using the same artificial metabolic pathway that the company uses to produce its bio-isobutene.

According to the company, artificial pathway means:

“The GBE pathway uses enzymatic activities and metabolic intermediates that are not found in nature but only occur in microbial strains engineered by GBE. By engineering new functions into natural enzymes, we have created enzymes with specificity towards non-natural substrates that lead to the synthesis of target molecules.”

Propylene, according to GBE, has never been naturally directly produced by microorganisms and therefore direct bio-production of propylene required an artificial metabolic pathway.

According to this February 2011 ICIS article, bio-based propylene however can be also produced (according to consulting firm Nexant) via:

  • Fermentation of sugars to produce bioethanol, followed by dehydration to bioethylene. A portion of the ethylene is dimerized to produce normal butenes, which are reacted with the remaining bioethylene via metathesis to produce propylene
  • Butanol is produced either by sugar fermentation or gasification of biomass and the bio-butanol is dehydrated to produce biobutene. The biobutene is reacted with bioethylene (as above)
  • Biopropane produced as a by-product of biodiesel production is dehydrogenated
  • Vegetable oil is fed to an enhanced fluid catalytic cracker unit (by the way, glycerol can also be converted to propanol right?)
  • Gasification of biomass to produce a syngas is followed by synthesis of biomethanol. Methanol-to-olefins technology is then used to produce propylene
Source: Nexant

Nexant believes that in the longer term, direct production of propylene via sugar fermentation process will be more economical than petrochemical routes.

Braskem has been the only company that the blog recalls having plans to build a sugar ethanol-based polypropylene (PP) plant via a new 30,000 tonne/year facility in Rio Grande do Sul near Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. The initial announcement was that the project is expected to be completed by 2013.

Chemical Week actually just published a comprehensive global PP market article today (subscription required), and in the article, Braskem was reported as making progress with its Green PP plans.

“The company has completed engineering studies and is awaiting board approval for construction of the green propylene plant, the first of its type, which will have a minimum capacity of 30,000 m.t./year.” – Braskem

The article did mention whether the 2013 timeframe is still on target.

As mentioned in the ICIS article, Dow Chemical has also been looking at bio-propylene routes especially for producing the propylene derivative acrylic acid and the acrylates chain. Dow, however, is currently collaborating with OPX Biotechnologies to produce bio-acrylic acid via the 3-hydroxypropionic (3-HP) route.

I also recall mentioning Coskata in December (when it announced its IPO intent) and its partner Total Petrochemicals and IFP Energies in collaborating on the development of microorganisms and syngas fermentation platform to produce propanol from biomass, waste and/or coal/natural gas.

Total and IFP Energies together have been developing a new process to dehydrate alcohol into alkenes (such as propanol to propylene), which can then be linked to Coskata’s syngas fermentation platform producing propanol.

“We believe this will result in the commercial-scale deployment of an end-to-end process to competitively produce propylene, allowing us and our future licensees and joint venture partners to access a large and fast growing market for a key petrochemical intermediate.” – Coskata

In terms of development and commercialization timeline for their bio-propylene, Total and Coskata’s partnership has a term of 20 years although it could be terminated early upon mutual agreement. First phase of the partnership is to develop the microorganism which started in early 2011. Second phase of the program will involve scale-up of the strains at a demo plant using both biomass-derived syngas and syngas from natural gas. Final phase will be the development of engineering package and cost estimate for the process.

Upon successful collaboration, the companies expect to have joint ownership of the propanol production technology, Coskata owning exclusive licensing rights, and preferential access by Total Petrochemicals to use the technology for its own propylene production.

Back to Global Bioenergies, the company said it will partner with major industrialists to develop a propylene bioprocess based on their technology.

GBE is currently working on its bio-isobutene project with plans to build an industrial scale pilot facility in 2013-2014, and commercial-scale production around 2017 onwards.

About Doris de Guzman

Will Green Chemistry save the world or is it hype?

Doris de Guzman examines alternative processing, new technology, R&D and other sustainability initiatives aimed at preventing pollution; replacing ingredients; and using renewable feedstocks in Green Chemistry.

She has been covering the oleochemicals market for 15 years and spread her beat to inorganics, biofuels and green chemistry.

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