Bio-Based Chemical Feedstocks

Moderator: Carl Bilgrien, Vice President of Research and Development, Arizona Chemical Company
Speakers: Michael Sanford, Research Manager, Biofuels, DuPont
Abhay Deshpande, Technology Manager, Resins, Arizona Chemical Company

Driven by the attention paid by the public to sustainability and by the increasing cost of fossil fuels, many companies are exploring ways to produce basic petrochemicals from renewable sources rather than crude oil. The goal of applying emerging technologies that
can economically convert biomass to chemicals now seems tantalizingly close. Although a number of companies have announced plans to produce products like butanediol, acrylic acid, and bio-plastics, formidable scale-up, feedstock supply, and logistics issues remain. 

In this session, moderated by Carl Bilgrien of the Arizona Chemical Company, two panelists spoke about their companies’ current use of bio-based feedstocks and how those feedstocks could impact products in the future. Bilgrien began by outlining why bio-based feedstocks demand their own breakout session: the increasing commitment of companies to sustainability; the desire to lessen reliance on the consumption of oil; the need for supply-chain diversification; the value of these feedstocks in certain markets; and, among other reasons, a more informed public asking questions about the content of products. Bilgrien also classified three main groupings of biorenewables: bio-refining, biomass conversion, and metabolic engineering, including biomaterials.

Michael Sanford, research manager for Biofuels at DuPont, began his presentation by providing an overview of DuPont’s reasons for developing bio-based feedstocks, including the transition from a fossil fuel to a renewable economy and broader global challenges, such as the urgent need to increase food production. Sanford explained that while the petroleum-based economy has mainly driven world advances in living standards to date, DuPont has a strong desire to reduce its use of petroleum. Consequently, the company is focused on how it can apply new technology to renewable feedstocks and create products similar to those that consumers use today. To do this, according to Sanford, DuPont uses its unique capabilities to integrate chemistry and biology. Sanford also discussed the large role played by metabolic engineering, as DuPont's goal in using metabolic engineering is to manipulate metabolic pathways—inserting or deleting genes, up and down regulating pathways—and to extract them for a different purpose. Both genomics and bioinformatics have also become increasingly important.

Sanford provided two examples of DuPont’s work in this area: bioPDO (1,3 propanediol, commercially known as Sorona polymer), which is substituted in polyester resin; and omega-3 essential oils. To produce bioPDO, DuPont collaborated with Genencore on metabolic engineering to combine the capabilities of two microorganisms, to convert sugar to PDO into a single microorganism and then to build the combined pathway in E. coli. The science was successful, but Sanford emphasized that success raised other questions, including how the new product would be incorporated into fiber and what new spinning technologies might be necessary to make this product commercially successful. DuPont adopted a holistic approach to release a successful product, Sorona fiber, via bio-based feedstocks in 2006.

DuPont’s work on a sustainable, non‒fish derived omega-3 oil (specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA) is in an earlier stage than the work on Sorona. Research began with Yarrowia lipolytica, a natural, oil-producing organism, which was then genetically modified to establish a pathway from linoleic acid, which is on the way to EPA (a 20-carbon fatty acid), to EPA itself. The result is an organism that creates more oil than the native organism; 56 percent of that oil is EPA. Process engineering to reduce cost is now under way. Overall, these two examples show what Sanford calls “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of where DuPont is headed regarding biomaterials.

Abhay Deshpande, an expert in terpenes from the Arizona Chemical Company, framed his talk by discussing the creation of value from pine-derived feedstocks. He first defined a bio-refinery by explaining that in a bio-refinery biomass feedstocks are converted and separated into a spectrum of valuable products in four categories: platforms, products, feedstocks, and processes.

Deshpande summarized the chemical processes behind Arizona Chemical’s bio-refinery, noting that their biomass-feedstocks are made from crude tall oil and crude sulfateturpentine, then refined into rosin, fatty acids, and terpenes. Further chemical separation turns those compounds into products. One specific product, TOFA (tall oil fatty acid), is a bio-derived polymer building block that has many industrial uses, including adhesive applications. Deshpande explained the process of converting rosin (TOR) by esterification to create glycerol ester and pentaerythritol esters. Four distinct terpenes are mixed and matched to develop a terpene-based resin to suit the need of specific applications. Applications include metalworking, adhesives, energy and mining, pharmaceuticals, and food additives. He concluded by noting that there are multiple high-value applications for the bio-refinery products.

The group discussion began with questions related to a fear of nanomaterials and genetically modified organisms. Further questions were related to sustainability and the value of “green” in today’s consumer economy: are customers willing to pay extra for bio-derived products, and what sort of value are consumers placing on bioPDO? Sanford provided an example from DuPont, explaining that people seem to be willing to pay more for personal-care products; in terms of commodity materials the cost position‒value position is looked at by consumers first, and green is a part of that equation. A session attendee noted that while being bio-derived is a plus, performance is where companies will capture value. This opinion was confirmed by panelists and other attendees. Sanford noted that in DuPont’s view Europe’s and Asia’s hesitation to use genetically modified organisms and nanomaterials comes from a desire to be ahead of possible new regulations. Final discussion centered on how to establish skills required for innovation in renewables and biotechnology. Various panelists and attendees concluded that having a broad interdisciplinary view and the ability to combine various fields will be requirements for new hires. Additional discussion focused on availability of multidisciplinary programs in universities and the role of open innovation.