Integrating the black and the green

31 December 2015

Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--Think of a chemicals production complex in the future. A highly integrated manufacturing site linked upstream to some sort of raw materials supply and downstream into an efficient logistics network allowing timely product delivery.

The trick for producers will be to build on what is best, to maintain the links that help keep costs down and allow processes and product delivery to flow smoothly.

The industry’s large companies operate some complex, integrated production sites and technological and economic developments suggest that they will continue to do so with integration, particularly, being the watchword.

The chemicals production complex of the future, however, might also be expected to be not entirely oil or gas based but be deriving some of its hydrocarbons from other sources. This may be where bio-processing really comes into its own allowing the seamless introduction of renewables or waste streams into the chemicals complex.

Researchers at EVONIK’s innovation unit Creavis are looking into the opportunities that might be available now and in the future to do just that – link chemistry and biology.

EVONIK says it is working on increasing the share of sustainable raw materials in its production processes. It is keeping a watchful eye on the climate debate, CO2 control and the shifting crude oil and refining picture.

The company says that it is not just about switching to biotechnological processes to make established products. A goal has been set to integrate processes and intermediates based on sustainable raw materials and integrated into production networks.

It is not a question of producing a bio-polyethylene, for example, but, rather, of teasing out processes to make valuable intermediates from renewable resources, even domestic and other waste.

“Whether raw materials, products or processes, only integrated concepts will make industrial sites successful on into the future. Such networks enable us not only to profit from the advantages of biotechnology but to continue to operate existing integrated production sites,” says head of the Science and Technology unit at Creavis, Dr Thomas Haas.

Alpha olefins are important polymer additives, for instance, and important intermediates. EVONIK uses propylene to make acrylic acid, the raw materials for superabsorbent polymers and for the animal feed additive methionine. The company sells 1-butene itself a raw material used to make plasticisers and other products.

Working with the University of Graz, it has found a biotechnological process to 1-alkenes based on a previously known method. The process can selectively produce propene (propylene) or 1-butene. It has to be transferred into a living system and will then require scale-up but is potentially a step along the way to close bio/traditional chemical production complex integration – the end products are volatile and easily extracted for use in the traditional chemical production complex.

The company is also not alone in looking at the potential of using synthesis gas more widely in an integrated production network. Synthesis gas can be made from any hydrocarbon resource (from natural gas or coal, for example) including waste and waste gases.

At EVONIK, researchers have generated pure 2-hydroxyisobutyric acid (2-HIBS) using microrganisms which is the basic raw material for poly methylmethacrylate (PMMA or PLEXIGLAS).

This could be an example of how chemical producers might move towards utilising third generation biotechnology in their production processes. It offers potentially a move away from using sugar or vegetable waste to municipal waste and perhaps to flue gas from steel production to produce synthesis gas – a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

Cost is the major fact when pitting renewables against oil and natural gas derived raw materials but waste steams offer, perhaps, cost-effective alternatives.

“ ‘Black gold’ remains the main raw material flowing through the veins of industrial operations,” says Haas in the latest edition of EVONIK’s research magazine, ‘elements 53’.

“This is why it is even more important to retain the integrated production networks and place them on a broader foundation—in other words, enable the use of black and green raw material sources, depending on economic conditions and the supply situation.”

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