On current trends, the share of biomaterials in coatings and other supply chains dominated by fossil-based chemicals should increase rapidly over the next 5-10 years.
“Biomass is becoming an alternative feedstock to crude oil but for the moment our target is not to replace crude oil but to increase our share of certain markets with biomaterials which are competitive in terms of their cost and technology,” said Christophe Rupp-Dahlem, programs director for vegetable-based chemistry at Roquette, a leading global producer of starches and starch derivatives which supplies biomaterials for coatings producers.
He was speaking during a press visit to the company’s main site at Lestrem, northwest France, organized by Roquette and DSM of the Netherlands with whom it has a joint venture for developing and producing corn-derived succinic acid, a polyester building block for the coatings and other sectors.
Roquette, which is one of the world’s biggest producers of bio-based polyols, believes that in France with its large agricultural sector renewable materials will double their share of industrial raw material to 15 percent by 2017.
DSM, which has recently moved out of petrochemicals production to become a leading pioneer in Europe of industrial or white biotechnology, says that in the long term plant-based materials will become the primary feedstock source for manufactured products.
The company, which through its DSM NeoResins business is a major supplier of resins to the coatings sector, believes that coatings and other sectors like pharmaceuticals and medical devices, automobiles, personal care products and electrical equipment will be the major end-markets for biomaterials.
However, to become a major force in coatings and other sectors in Europe, biomaterials face a number of challenges. One of the biggest of these is the availability of agricultural crops like corn at a competitive price.
A big driver behind moves in the coatings market into biomaterials is fears about rising crude oil prices. Coatings producers do not want to be confronted also with steep increases in prices of agricultural commodities.
“At the end of the day the ratio between crude oil and corn prices will determine the extent of the success of a venture like this,” said Will van den Tweel, general manager of Reverdia, the DSM-Roquette joint venture which at present has at Lestrem a demonstration plant with a biosuccinic acid capacity of a few hundred tons.
Corn prices have been rising at a record rate amidst speculation that they would return to the peaks of the global food crisis of 2007-2008 with demand outstripping supply.
DSM, which makes succinic acid at Graz, Austria, from the petrochemical-based maleic anhydride, has developed an enzyme and yeast technology which enables Reverdia to make the chemical from corn-derived glucose far more cheaply than the conventional process.
Production of Reverdia’s biosuccinic is even less expensive than that of bacteria-based technologies for biosuccinic manufacture employed by some competitors in North America and Europe.
“With our process, which uses yeast at the fermentation stage, purification of the biosuccinic is much easier than with the bacteria-based technology,” said van den Tweel..
“Succinic acid from maleic anhydride sells for €2.50-4.00 ($3.50 -5.50) per kilo,” he said. “In comparison we can sell biosuccinic, which is the same molecule, at a very competitive price.”
DSM NeoResins already envisages marketing coatings resins with biosuccinic-derived polyesters. DSM also expects biosuccinate to be a component of composites for coatings. It can also be used to make biosolvents, plasticizers and biopolymers in coatings and other products.
Currently DSM estimates that coatings, pigments, dyes and inks account for 11,000 tons of total annual demand of 35,000 tons of succinic acid worldwide. Once low-cost biosuccinic becomes widely available, demand for the chemical for coatings and coatings resins production could reach as high as 140,000 tons in 2020 out of a total biosuccinic consumption of around two million tons, most of which will be used to manufacture polyurethanes and 1,4-butanediol/pyrrolidones.
For DSM biosuccinic is the first in a range of major biomaterials it is planning to develop from its expertise in white biotechnology. Biosuccinic in particular has enormous potential to provide a variety of new compounds and applications in coatings and other sectors.
“It can be used in materials for which it was previously not viable because of its cost,” said Volkert Claassen, DSM vice president for strategy and growth options. “Instead of succinic acid being like a niche product it will become a commodity. This will be an impetus for a lot of innovation work on the chemical.”
DSM and Roquette aim to decide within the next few months on the size and location of a commercial plant for its biosuccinic process.
The biosuccinic acid is already showing market potential when supplied in combination with Roquette’s bio-based polyols to form composites for coatings and other applications. Glucose from corn can be hydrogenated to sorbitol, which can be converted into isosorbide and other diols for which the company is raising production capacity at Lestrem to 1,000 tons next year.
In combination with biosuccinic, isosorbide can be made into a polyester which with other renewable monomers such as butanediol, propanediol and citric acid can then be extended into branched copolyesters to give even greater scope for cross-linking.
Roquette has been recently testing with customers isosorbide- and succinic-based co- and terpolyesters for powder coatings applications. “It can be applied in very thin transparent layers and has a high impact resistance,” said Rupp-Dahlem.
Nonetheless, exactly how quickly these polyester-based products and other biomaterials penetrate the European coatings market will depend on a number of key factors, especially price trends in agricultural crops.
“Over the last two decades renewable feedstocks like corn and raw sugar cane have experienced lower price volatility than has crude oil,” said van den Tweel. Roquette and DSM are hoping that over the long term this trend will continue despite recent fluctuations in corn prices.
DSM is developing enzyme and yeast technologies for producing biochemicals as well as biofuels from cellulose and lignocellulose from the stems, leaves and other residual biomass rather than from crop grains and seeds so that biomaterials are no longer directly influenced by food prices.
However this second generation of biomaterials will require networks of biorefineries across Europe whose development and construction will have to be supported by government grants and financial incentives.
“Europe has the competence in biotechnology and chemistry as well as the biomass resources for large scale bioproduct conversion by 2020,” said Claassen. “European governments need to show more determination to make it happen.”