I always enjoyed visiting production facilities and learning how chemicals are produced in reality! And yes, like somebody I know – you know who you are! 😉 – I also enjoyed taking a selfie with my protective gear on (hard hat, lab coat, eyewear, etc).
GFBiochemicals was kind enough to invite me to their press tour last week in Caserta, Italy, and get to know the staff as well as their levulinic acid production, their milestones and plans going forward. The company started operations of their levulinic acid plant in July using corn starch feedstock for now, but plans to switch to wood waste feedstock by next year.
The facility uses thermochemical conversion to produce levulinic acid, meaning there are no fermentation involved in this process. Biomass pre-treatment will include acid hydrolysis for the conversion into C5 and C6 sugars. Co-products will include formic acid, furfural and char although there will be significantly less furfural production with the use of wood waste feedstock. Right now the company does not recover and purify formic acid but there will be plans to do this and sell it into the market in the future. The char is being used for energy.
Current levulinic acid production capacity for the Caserta facility is at 1,200 tons with plans to gradually increase to its full 10,000 ton- capacity by 2017. A world-scale 50 ktpa plant could be in the horizon by 2019 if all goes well with this market. The beauty of this bio-based building block is its target application markets are not affected as much with the volatility of crude oil pricing since most of its applications are low-volume, high-value products in a variety of specialty chemicals markets such as in flavors and fragrances, pharmaceutical, household and personal care, solvents, fuel additives, lubricants, polymer intermediates/additives, plasticizers, agrochemicals, etc. The challenge is the need for further market developments as current use of levulinic acid is limited due to low commercial availability and high price pre-GFBiochemicals era.
The company is offering a more sustainably-produced and a much lower levulinic acid price compared to incumbent products currently manufactured mostly from China. GFBiochemical’s technology reportedly enables continuous operation, has innovative recovery/purification technology, high conversion yield, uses 1-step conversion, and generates own energy from the by-product char. Market opportunity for the bio-based chemical building block is estimated at $30 billion and could be attained within 10 years with expanded commercial production of levulinic acid.
I actually first heard of GFBiochemicals last year but the privately-funded company was founded in 2008 with a team of managers and bio-engineers, some of whom have extensive prior experience of biomaterials production with DSM. In 2009, these group (I call them levulinic acid crusaders but don’t tell them that) leased the former Green Future S.r.l. levulinic acid facility in Caserta in order to develop and demonstrate its own technology, and with a new funding in 2013, it has rebranded to now what it’s called GFBiochemicals and fully acquired the Caserta facility by 2014.
GFBiochemicals said it has overhauled the previously known levulinic acid production in Caserta from top to bottom using their own patented technology. The Caserta plant has been retrofitted with new and modified conversion, recovery and purification technology.
Its first commercial shipments from the facility will start in Q1 2016 using industry standard shipping (e.g. 2-liter drum packaging). In terms of financing needs, the company said it will break-even by the time they increased their capacity to 4,500 tons next year. GFBiochemicals has also started discussions for commercial expansion outside Italy citing Brazil, Asia and even USA as possibilities. The technology can use any kind of lignocellulosic feedstock.
CAPEX needed for a greenfield 10 ktpa facility is around $80-200 million, which is reportedly a typical investment required for this type of chemical production. GFBiochemicals was lucky to have the Caserta facility available, which lessened down their CAPEX costs to start commercial production. Start-up problems were also not as challenging since the Caserta facility is originally geared toward levulinic acid production.
In terms of business strategies down the road, GFBiochemicals is not averse to licensing its technology although it prefers a partnership approach in terms of production.
You can read more about the market of levulinic acid, who are the producers, current prices, etc., in Tecnon OrbiChem’s Bio-Materials newsletter (subscription required).