One of the many nuggets from the book Bluff your way in consultancy is that nobody should ever offer a prediction with a specific date. In other words, feel free to forecast the future, but stay vague about the actual timing and sooner or later you’re bound to be proven right.
And so it is with a new generation of sugar chemicals. Over the last decade, a stream of market studies have been issued, from institutions such as the US Department of Energy, the International Energy Agency; industry experts such as IHS and Nexant; even the UK’s own FROPTOP, part of the National Non-Food Crops Centre. At first blush, they can give the impression that a new dawn of sweeter feedstocks – derived from fructose, glucose and even cellulose – lies just around the corner.
However, the studies’ authors must have read the book. Although they point to plenty of potential, they also mention technical and economic challenges and refrain from making bold ‘X tonnes by date Y’ claims. That was clever, because in-place capacity of second-generation sugar-based chemicals is about 300,000t/year at most. In estimated descending order of tonnage, the leading products are propylene glycol, propanediol, isobutanol, farnesene and succinic acid.
This will probably grow in coming years, and some new faces might join the crowd (see table, left), but don’t expect to see a major second-generation sector emerge any time soon.
First-generation sugar chemicals, by contrast, are an established industry segment. The largest product is fermentation ethanol, which, thanks to biofuel subsidies, has tripled its size over the past 15 years to some 90m t consumed annually. This has squeezed out synthetic ethanol, which used to be a significant source of supply, to a current market share of 1-2%.
After ethanol come three other traditional fermentation products: lactic acid, furfural and sorbitol, which together account for an estimated 1m t/year consumption. The former and latter are mostly used as additives to food, drugs and personal care products. Furfural, in the middle, goes mainly into furfural alcohol, which is used to make specialised resins and solvents. While all these are traditional industries, their recent growth rates have ranged from 5 to 15%/year. For instance, furfural, which by the 1990s was seen as a moribund business, is projected to double to about 800,000t in the coming decade, says process licensor Dalin Yebo.
What turned around demand for the traditionals is simple: a boom in bio. For fuels, this has been spurred by governments. For products, this has been driven by customers and their end consumers.
Fairly typical of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector is Unilever, which has put bio high on its banner. The consumer giant has launched a ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ that, according to research director Paul Jenkins, ‘has the potential to revolutionise the way we manufacture household products and further reduce the environmental impact of our products. [It] could eventually result in a range of new alternatives for core ingredients like surfactants and polymers, which go into many of our home and personal care products.’
The key word here is ‘potential’. Suppliers of bio-chemicals point out that, unlike governments, consumer-product-companies expect any revolution to be a profitable one. Moreover, they note that upon closer inspection, bio-products sometimes can bog down in other issues. First, using food for fuel is particularly unloved by the likes of Greenpeace. Using food for, say, a perceived luxury such as cosmetics might also meet disapproval. Second, bio-chemicals might not be as low-carbon as first assumed. Only a decade ago, biodiesel and bioethanol were hailed by European governments as the answer to global warming – since then several studies have shown they are not as green as was once thought.
But going bio is by no means inevitable. One example is ‘renewable’ polymer polylactic acid (PLA), which drove a lot of the growth of its lactic acid monomer, but not enough to discourage Dow Chemical in 2005 from stepping out of a joint-venture to make it with Cargill. In 2012-13, Dow and competitor Braskem backed off of plans to build more bio-polyethyene capacity – from sugar, fermented to bioethanol and dehydrated to ethylene – in Brazil. In the spring of 2014, JBF Industries cancelled plans to supply 500,000t/year of Brazilian bio ethylene glycol that would have been turned into PET bottles for Coca-Cola.
Still, traditional sugar chemicals are growing, so producers are cautiously looking to find the next big things of the next generation.
|Acetone (and n-butanol)
|Several plants shut down
Startup in 2016 R&D
|Fermentation of fructose and glucose to acetone and n-butanol
|Fermentation of glucose to 3-hydroxypropionic acid, which is then dehydrated to make acrylic acid. Other producers are looking at glycerin, lactic acid and fumaric acid feeds
|R&D, some pilot ops.
Some of these companies will look to license to an established chemical company
|Fermentation of glucose via either glucaric or muconic acid. Others looking at using oil feedstocks
|BDO 1,4 butanedio
|All three in R&D together with Genomatica, a licensor. BASF says it will build world-scale plant. Metabolix also licensing a process
|Fermentation of sugar by genetically-engineered organisms. Others looking bio succinic acid feedstock
|R&D, together with Genomatica and IFP/Axens
|Fermentation of sugar by genetically-engineered organisms. Others looking at unspecified, non-food bio feedstocks
Startup planned 2016
|Sucrose fermented by genetically-engineered yeast.
|Startup in 2014
|Undisclosed processing of glucose
Butamax Adv. Biofuels
|Fermentation of sugars by genetically-engineered yeast
|R&D, together with licensors such as Ajinomoto, Amyris, Genencor
|Fermentation of sugars by genetically-engineered organisms
|Demo in operation, commercial plant ‘targeted’ for 2016-17
|Aqeous-phase reforming, ie not fermentation
|PDO 1,3 propane-diol
|DuPont Tate & Lyle
|Startup 2006, expanded 2011 Pilot ops, commercial plant in Malaysia on hold
|Global from corn fermented by genetically-engineered E.coli. Other producers are trying bio-glycerin feedstock.
|Global uses sorbitol feedstock. Metabolic is fermenting sucrose and glucose. Other producers use bio-glycerin feedstock
|Small plant in F, Canada
|Corn glucose fermented by genetically-engineered yeast or E. coli. Other producer is using glycerin feedstock
Topping the next-gen list so far, in volume, is propylene glycol, which goes into polyester plus a range of consumer and industrial goods. China’s Global Bio-Chem makes 100,000t/year for its polyols’ feedstock at Xinglongshan, using glucose-based sorbitol as feedstock. Licensor Metabolic Explorer is reportedly researching a similar route at its site in France. Two other plants, run by Archer Daniels Midland in the US and Oleon in Belgium, make their propylene glycol not from sugar, but from excess glycerine pouring out of biodiesel production.
Then comes 64,000t/year of propanediol, fermented from corn-sourced glucose by DuPont Tate & Lyle in Tennessee, US. Official figures are scarce, but the product finds a home in a range of PDO applications – from polymers to consumer products to aircraft de-icers. De-icer supplier Kilfrost contends the bio-PDO sports a lower carbon footprint than the competing stuff made from fossil feedstocks, but this is disputed by competitor Clariant (C&I, 2011, 12, 12)
Isobutanol is officially third on the list, but this is a bit unclear. Gevo is reported to be making 55,000t/year at a retrofitted ethanol plant in Minnesota, US. However, the operation is reported to have encountered reliability issues that have caused some lengthy shutdowns. A Minnesota neighbour, Highwater Ethanol has also made moves in the market, again with a modified ethanol plant. Its operation, of unspecified capacity, is reportedly up and running as of mid-summer 2014.
Farnesene has also come on the scene, with a 35,000t/year plant brought onstream in Brazil by Amyris in 2012. Although it is a 15-carbon terpene – used mainly in flavours and fragrances – the process actually ferments farnesene from glucose. Another similar process of unspecified capacity has been announced for commercial startup in 2016 by Brazil’s SMA Industria Quimica.
Succinic acid is behind farnesene in volume, with output of about 25,000t/year. BioAmber, Myriant and Reverdia are all producing it from sugar, while competitor Succinity pumps out another 10,000t from glycerine feedstock. The output is believed to be flowing into traditional succinic acid additive applications, but the dream is to convert it to 1,4 butanediol. BASF has said it plans to build a world-scale bio-BDO plant, but declined to comment further.
Last on the commercialised list, in volume, is a class of chemicals called glucamides. In June 2014, Clariant announced startup of a glucamides plant of unspecified capacity, presumably at one of its German sites. The sugary amides can be applied in personal care products, cleaners and pesticide formulation, with an estimated market potential of €40m.
Most of the second-generation sugar chemicals suppliers are fairly tight-lipped about market forecasts and process details. They cite concerns about confidentiality, noting that much of the market is still in an R&D mode, and that in numerous products, clear winners – for that matter, even strong contenders – have yet to emerge. If they share the enthusiasm of an industry analyst who in early 2013 wrote of the ‘sweet future’ of sugar, then they surely are keeping that well hidden.
The conclusion seems to be that, aside from subsidised fuel ethanol, both first- and second-generation sugar-chemicals will continue to be niche players for some time to come.
Eric Johnson is managing director of Atlantic Consulting based in Zurich, Switzerland.