Arkema is fully engaged in the bio-based chemical processes
Arkema has made the development of biosourced products one of its priorities. The Group already runs 5 bio-based factories in the world, the production of which currently accounts for 13% of its sales. Arkema has been working on a number of new projects. Progress report with Jean-Luc Dubois, Scientific Director Catalysis, Process and Biomass Conversion.
Arkema is a world player in biosourced chemistry; what are your main activities in this field?
Jean-Luc Dubois > At Arkema, plant-based chemicals are nothing new. From our 136 sites around the world, we can say that we have 4 bio-based factories.
The first, based in Marseille, converts castor oil into amino undecanoic acid (or amino 11), the monomer for PA11 (Rilsan®), an ultra high performance « long-chain » polyamide of which we have been the only producers in the world for almost 60 years.
We also co-produce large volumes of glycerin, heptanaldehyde, heptanol, heptanoic acid and fatty esters, which we sell to the pharmaceuticals, paint, lubricant, and fragrance markets.
We run another bio-based factory operating on castor oil feedstock in Hengshui, China - Casda Biomaterials, a company we acquired 2 years ago – but which is involved in a different kind of chemistry and produces another monomer, sebacic acid. This acid is used by Hipro Polymers – another company we acquired at the same time – to produce polyamide 10.10, polymer used in the long-chain polyamide market.
In the United States, our Blooming Prairie plant specializes in the epoxidation of biosourced raw materials, such as soybean oil and flax seed oil, as well as terpenes derived from conifer resins in particular. The resulting products are used as additives in polymer and lubricant formulations as well as in the cosmetics industry.
Finally, we operate 1 bio-based factory in France within our subsidiary CECA. The Feuchy plant converts vegetable fatty acids into surfactants, used in wide-ranging applications including warm mix asphalt for bitumen or as anticaking agents for fertilizers.
At what stage is your research into producing renewable acrylic acid?
Jean-Luc Dubois > Arkema is a world player in acrylic acid (currently produced from propylene), the main raw material for absorbents used in babies diapers and for resins for paint. Accordingly, we have been working for many years in our Pierre-Bénite and Carling research centers to produce acrylic acid from glycerol, a byproduct of bio-diesel and oleochemicals.
However, industrial rollout depends on large volumes of glycerol being obtained at competitive grades and prices. Our customers are ready to buy renewable acrylic acid, but not if it is 15% more expensive than conventional acrylic acid. Policy changes at European level, in particular biofuel aid schemes, have not made it possible to obtain the expected volumes of glycerol on the market, which is going to delay the industrial exploitation of technologies such as ours which anticipated wider availability.
Exactly; isn’t the development of renewable chemicals likely to be limited because of production costs?
Jean-Luc Dubois > With the bio-based factories we have been operating for years, we have the proof that it is possible to manufacture technical and high performance biosourced products that are competitive and fulfill genuine demand from the market. We know today that the most viable model is that of the biorefinery based on recovering those fractions from plants we are interested in, and on finding partners to valorize the remainder, which does not mean that the remaining fractions are less noble.
The benefit for a company like Arkema is to go as far back as possible, in the analysis, within the value chain, right up to the plant. This has to be carefully selected based on the products we want to manufacture, but also on the products that will yield the best value for our partners.
Have you already developed partnerships to develop new projects?
Jean-Luc Dubois > Yes, we have. With Elevance Renewable Sciences, we have been working together on developing and producing specialty biosourced polymers. Elevance supplies to us functionalized intermediates of renewable origin, particularly innovative and for the moment unique in the market – in particular their 9-decenoic acid methyl ester which they started to produce in their biorefinery in Indonesia.
More recently, we began a research collaboration with the French startup Global Bioenergies in the field of fermentative isobutene. We are interested in this molecule and more broadly in all the olefins that Global Bioenergies might produce by biotechnology.