Much of the impetus is coming from climate change. The European Union has set a target of 30 percent of existing petrochemical-derived chemicals and materials being replaced by bio-based and biodegradable alternatives by 2030.
This objective is in line with the long-term aim in Europe of establishing low-carbon, circular economies with substantial reductions in CO2 emissions and greater reliance on its own raw materials with much more recycling and reuse of materials to achieve zero waste.
At the same time there is a widespread desire to move away from fossil fuels in order to reduce pollution with air, both inside and outside buildings, being much cleaner.
There is also, however, an increasingly urgent need for action to deal with frequent shortages of petrochemical-derived raw materials because of declining demand for gasoline and diesel for automobiles and light vehicles. Analysts reckon that consumption of fossil fuels, from which petrochemicals are produced, has already peaked in Europe, ahead of any other regions in the world.
The capacity for petrochemicals production is being expanded in North America, where the shale gas boom has prompted the building of new petrochemical plants, Middle East and Asia, particularly China.
In Europe, on the other hand, the output of crude oil refineries which provide the feedstocks for petrochemical plants, has been decreasing as a result of refinery closures. This has led to a shrinking in petrochemicals capacity.
One exception is the U.K.-owned INEOS, a leading European petrochemicals producer which has been trying to make its petrochemicals operations more internationally competitive by investing in tankers and terminals to transport low-cost U.S. shale ethane to its sites in the U.K. and on mainland Europe.
However, some of Europe’s leading producers of coatings raw materials are already looking to renewables as a long-term alternative to petrochemical derivatives. These comprise mostly biomass but also innovate technologies like the use of CO2 to make polymers for coatings and other resins.
Covestro has already commercialized a polyol made from CO2 for the production of polyurethanes. The polyol is produced at a facility at Dormagen, near Cologne, Germany, which uses CO2 from the waste stream of a neighboring coal-fired power plant. “By using our CO2 technology for the synthesis of polyurethane raw materials, (we) have begun to close the carbon cycle in plastics production,” said Hermann-Josef Doerholt, Covestro’s polyurethanes sales manager in Europe.
The company is also looking to establish bio-based value chains in chemicals as well. It has developed a technology for making the polyurethane precursor aniline from vegetable raw materials.
Evonik, another German chemicals company, which is expanding its coatings ingredients and additives business, is developing with the German engineering company Siemens a technology for converting CO2 into speciality chemicals.
Electrolysis is applied to a CO2, water and oxygen to produce a synthesis gas of carbon dioxide and monoxide and hydrogen, which is then metabolized by bacteria in a fermenter to produce feedstocks for chemicals manufacture.
The technology is unlikely to be commercialized for several years. “It is still a research project,”said an Evonik spokesperson, who added that in two years it would be transferred to a 25 tonne-a-year pilot plant.
A joint venture between BASF and Avantium, a Dutch-based technology company, which is also developing a CO2-to-chemicals process, has had to postpone, due to technical complications, the building of a 50,000 ton-a-year plant for 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a bio-based building block for various products, including coatings chemicals.
But, in a partnership with AkzoNobel, Avantium is pressing ahead with the opening of a pilot plant this summer at Delfzijl, Netherlands, for producing high-purity glucose from non-food biomass. The next step will be the construction of a commercial-scale biorefinery.
Already coatings raw material suppliers are jockeying for position in the growing market for products from bio and renewable sources. The advantage is lying with those who have been early pioneers in the development of sustainable chemicals.
They are likely to have commercialized products which with the help of technological advances can be steadily improved to differentiate them from other sustainable and petrochemical-based chemicals in terms of performance.
DSM Coatings Resins, part of the Dutch DSM group, has been upgrading its bio-based Decovery resin since it was first launched 10 years ago so that it now provides a technology platform for a range of resins derived from sugars, natural oils and starch from agricultural and other waste.
Furthermore it provides a building block for coatings whose qualities are not only superior to other bio-based resins but equal if not better to petrochemical products.
“Up until now, (sustainable) coatings have been very inferior in quality compared to oil-based coatings,” commented Salvatore Cozzolini, an Italian furniture designers, on Iridea Bio, a coating containing Decovery made by ICA Group, Italy. “We now have a sustainable plant-based coating that is resilient, resistant to chemicals and lightfast, putting it on the same level as traditional oil-based coatings.”
This high-level performance has given DSM Coating Resins much greater scope for branding its product.
The Dutch Maxeda DIY chain now sales its premium own-label Perfection coating with the name ‘Perfection with Decovery’ on its container.
Its versatility has also provided opportunities for customization. PPG Industries uses a Decovery binder in its Sigma Air Pure which cleans indoor air by neutralizing formaldehyde emissions from furniture, flooring and fabrics. DSM has also collaborated with PPG and the Dutch doormaker Weekamp Deuren to develop sustainable exterior doors with recycled wood and a plant-based coating.
DSM Coating Resins has been working closely not only with coatings producers in the development of the Decovery range but also with its raw material suppliers to create an integrated value chain of sustainable products.
One of these suppliers has been Netherlands-based Royal Cosun which operates a biorefinery for making from sugar beet pulp chemicals, materials, fuels and other products. Among the chemicals are a cellulosic microfiber for use in coatings.
Across Europe a growing number of circular chains are being established in coatings and other sectors. They extend from farms, processing plants to end-users where products are recycled so that they or their chemicals and materials can be reused in a cradle-to-cradle system.
The European economy is probably at the beginning of a transition period in which sectors like coatings are being transformed from domination by petrochemical derivatives to ones with an equal mixture of both petrochemical and renewables- based products. The key question is how much during this change supplies of key chemicals will be disrupted causing shortages with even more volatile raw material prices.