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Opportunities to Transition Ethanol Facilities to Biochemical Refineries

Submitted by on April 24, 2017 – 8:21 pmNo Comment

by Daniel A. Lane and Joel A. Stone (Lee Enterprises Consulting/Biofuels Digest)  … As the market for gasoline grew, a shortage soon developed for the lighter fractions of crude oil. This shortage led to the development of the catalytic cracker, which breaks long hydrocarbon chains into smaller molecules. This new technology allowed refiners not only the ability to produce higher octane gasoline, but also the ability to produce more valuable byproducts, such as olefins. A petrochemicals industry was born. By the 1940s, demand for synthetic materials to replace expensive and sometimes less efficient natural materials increased dramatically and petrochemicals processing developed into an industry of its own with new companies started based upon a chemicals business model.

Consider the basics of this story: An industry starts out from humble beginnings and grows rapidly to fill a market demand, replacing outdated sources. As technology advances, market demands shift, and the industry shifts with it. New technologies arise in part due to this shift, and an entirely new industry forms and spins off. We propose that a reinvention of the chemicals industry offers an opportunity within the ethanol industry for the expansion of ethanol plants to renewable chemicals and materials.

Although the first use of ethanol as a motor fuel was almost 200 years ago, the ethanol industry we know today finds its roots in the 1970s, when petroleum-based fuel became expensive due to embargoes and production decreases. Corn became the predominant feedstock for this nascent industry due to its abundance and the ease with which it can be converted to ethanol.

In the 90s, the need for gasoline oxygenates to reduce carbon monoxide emissions created an additional boost to demand for ethanol, and the phasing out of MTBE as an octane booster in the late 90s created yet another boost. In 2005, the first Renewable Fuel Standard became law, providing for ethanol production of 4 billion gallons in 2006. MTBE was eliminated from further use as an oxygenate and octane booster in 2006 and in a parallel effort the significant growth of the US ethanol industry was well on its way.

As with our petroleum refining industry story, the fuel ethanol industry has seen a demand shift. In today’s case, it’s not to a different product from the same feed, but instead the need to use a different feed to produce the same product. However, producers limited to the same feed have the opportunity to change production to renewable chemicals. The latest RFS calls for 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, and technologies to produce cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels have arisen to meet this demand. Along the way, technologies have been created or adapted to produce chemicals such as organic acids, alcohols, and olefins. These are collectively considered renewable chemicals.

The renewable chemicals industry is emerging as a subset of a $450 billion specialty chemical market …

An updated report was released by DOE/NREL that modifies that list after considering the current potential to accelerate these chemicals to market. The updated list of chemicals includes:

  • Four carbon 1,4-diacids (succinic, fumaric, and malic)
  • 2,5-Furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA)
  • 3-Hydroxy propionic acid (3-HPA)
  • Aspartic acid
  • Glucaric acid
  • Glutamic acid
  • Itaconic acid
  • Levulinic acid
  • Hydroxybutyrolactone
  • Glycerol
  • Sorbitol (sugar alcohol of glucose)
  • Xylitol/arabinitol (sugar alcohols from xylose and arabinose)

These chemicals are all identified as having a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 6 or better, meaning the manufacturing process has already been tested at engineering/pilot scale. Two thirds of them have a TRL of 9 (tested at full production scale) when using commodity feedstocks such as starch or sugar. More than half have publicly-disclosed ongoing R&D for the use of lignocellulosic feedstocks, but what is key is that a number of them have been demonstrated at commercial scale using commodity sugars such as dextrose that would be corn or biomass derived.

As the corn ethanol industry looks for growth opportunities outside of fuel ethanol, renewable chemicals are an opportunity in the reinvention of the chemical industry and the progression to biorefineries. Many existing corn facilities already make dextrose, which is a perfectly acceptable feedstock for many of these processes. Other facilities can be retrofitted with equipment to produce clean sugar streams that can feed these processes. However, by just producing the sugars, manufacturers leave others the opportunity to produce and sell these high value chemicals; that’s not the transition these facilities should be considering. They need to be considering what it would take to convert from an ethanol refinery to a biochemical refinery.

Collaborations between existing ethanol businesses and renewable chemical startups would offer a natural progression to a healthy renewable chemicals business platform.

When looking at potential biochemical technologies, ethanol producers need to consider three types of opportunities: Full repurposing of the facility, partial repurposing (e.g. 2 out of 8 fermenters), and bolt-on technologies.

Finally, ethanol producers could consider licensing versus collaboration models.   READ MORE

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