Elevance and Wilmar begin commercial shipments of biobased chemicals from newly commissioned refinery
Coming out of the dark: a project in Gresik, Indonesia; the company you know as Elevance Renewable Sciences; and a technology called olefin metathesis that’s highly worth knowing.
In Singapore, Wilmar International and Elevance Renewable Sciences have just announced that they have begun shipping commercial products, including novel specialty chemicals, to customers from their first world-scale joint venture biorefinery, located in Gresik, Indonesia. The biorefinery is the first based on Elevance’s proprietary metathesis technology.
The commercial-scale manufacturing facility produces novel specialty chemicals, including multifunctional esters such as 9-decenoic methyl ester, a unique distribution of bio-based alpha and internal olefins including decene and a premium mixture of oleochemicals. It has a capacity of 180kMT (approximately 400 million pounds) with the ability to expand up to 360kMT (approximately 800 million pounds) of products. (For those of you who think in terms of gallons, 180kMT is around 57 million gallons per year – the size of a major biodiesel facility).
Now the project cost might be a shocker. $40 million at Gresik for the whole shebang. Some of that stems from the site integration advantage of Wilmar’s big refining complex at Gresik – the opportunities to share utilities and other infrastructure.
But, overall, there’s a lot more driving down the cost. Essentially Elevance is using a very sophisticated catalyst, but is able focus design on achieving simplicity.
Why? “The catalyst provides very benign operating conditions,” notes Elevance CEO K’Lynne Johnson. “It’s a reaction that occurs at 60-70 C and slightly above atmospheric pressure, so we are able to reduce the design parameters compared to other technologies, and reduce process steps. The elegance is in driving simplicity. Plus, we don’t have large waste streams, and we don’t have toxic co-products — that helps drive low capex.”
So – what is special about metathesis technology, anyway?
Olefin metathesis. Sounds like something you take after a heavy meal. But it’s a chemistry so revolutionary in its potential that a trio of researchers that unlocked the mysteries of how to catalyze the reactions landed the 2005 Nobel Prize.
“To explain it to someone who is not deep in the chemistry, I usually ask them to think about LEGO building blocks,” says Johnson. “With petrochemicals, what you start with is this very carbon dense but very complex set of molecules. It’s like a very complicated, large and interesting LEGO creation. With petrochemicals, what you do is smash it to bits then rearrange the very small bits, first into the building blocks and then into the finished chemicals you need.
“By contrast, we take another carbon dense oil, from biomass, and with our technology we can clip and rearrange instead of smashing it into the smallest pieces. We can preserve whole molecules, pull out difunctional or multifunctional pieces — keep pieces that nature can create but are very difficult to create synthetically.
“Going back to LEGOs, you know if you get enough of them you can build anything. But here you can build efficiently — and because we are building that way, we can build chemicals that have very special performance characteristics.”
Accordingly, the high-value, di-functional specialty chemicals produced at the biorefinery have superior functional attributes, previously unavailable commercially. These molecules combine the functional attributes of an olefin, typical of petrochemicals, and a monofunctional ester or acid, typical of bio-based oleochemicals, into a single molecule.
Where is Elevance going?
“At both biorefineries, it’s the same fundamental technology,” Johnson explained. “At Gresik, we using primarily palm oil, at Mississippi, primarily canola and soy. Both are feedstock flexible – can use any of the renewable oils, though with waste oils it depends on the waste stream. Ones that have high free fatty acids are not appealing to us. But it will always come down to a combination of price and supply – if jatropha oil and algae, for example, come along, we’d be glad to have them.”
“With this significant inflection point,” Johnson noted, “the emphasis moves to the ramp up of volumes, and then to new product commercializations, and entering the new markets. We’re ramping up now over several months, and we have secured the offtake for a substantial portion of our capacity. As we ramp up, we’ll continue to fill that up.
“We’re working with our partners, such as Arkema and Stepan Company, to meet product demand and accelerate rapid deployment and commercialization of their high-performance chemicals in end user applications.”
Next stop: Mississippi
“As we are have outlined consistently,” Johnson added, “we see significant enough demand to shift now to the second plant. That’s still in Mississippi, and we expect to be operational there in 2016.
Elevance’s core business model is build, own and operate — but they retain the freedom to choose to license or establish partnerships as they are desirable.
Driven by opportunities they see in the lab, or opportunities they see in the market?
“It’s a combination of discovery, partnership and market forces,” said Johnson. “Usually there’s an overall understanding of the types and properties and advantages that our chemicals deliver. We match that against market areas. After that initial screen, we then then have the partner or customer conversations that validate and shape that opportunity.
Timing? “We have a strategic framework, and a business model — with partnerships, in specific market segments, we can accelerate opportunities.”
Always starting in the home kitchen? “Sometimes we have had inbound interest where, initially, we didn’t think the gap looked as compelling as other opportunities, but have had such significant inbound interest and requests that we have adjusted.”
“We are focused on several core segments — we see a lot in detergents and cleaners right now, and personal care, we see increasing activity there. Others include lubricants and additives, engineered polymers; lubricant base oils with improved stability and fuel economy; and unique monomers for bio-based polymers and engineered plastics, including long chain polyamides, polyurethanes and polyesters.
“In detergents and cleaners – we see some clear gaps. Stepan is helping us to frame those up and helping with customer introductions. For example, detergent formulations that clean better in cold water, or increased solvency for better degreasing and hard-surface cleaning.
Reaction from Wilmar
“The technology, now proven on a global scale, is driving positive changes in the chemical industry at large by delivering novel products that improve performance and reduce environmental impact compared to alternates,” said Rahul Kale, Head of Biofuels and Oleochemicals at Wilmar International Limited. ”We are pleased that startup is complete and shipments to customers from our joint venture are now underway.”
The Digest’s Take
Down in Miami where the Digest calls home, when the heat is on and the hour is late, the salsa clubs are crowded and the Cuban music is flowing, and nobody wants to go home.
There, on a good night, you might see the Salsa Rueda dancers: the dancers form a ring, and rapidly wheel into new positions, change partners, then wheel and change again, with dizzying rapidity until a completely new configuration of dancers have formed a new ring. (You can see a highly-stylized, romanticized version of it in Gloria Estefan’s signature “No me dejas de querer” (Don’t Stop Loving Me), here.)
It’s olefin metathesis in human form. A new — often dramatically improved — dance partnership is made out of an elegant, rhythmic exchange of the partners. Now, a nightclub pulsating to Gloria Estefan’s mid-career salsa anthems may be an odd place to research olefin metathesis — but you really will never see such an elegant display of its fundamentals, and certainly nowhere else that you can order a decent Mojito.
Gloria Estefan comes to mind, also, because in some ways, Elevance is just now “coming out of the dark” – to borrow the title of Estefan’s biggest hit. The company has remained relatively quiet — never a fanfare or a flurry of press releases. Generally, they’ve been based on substance, and focused on communicating achievements.
Noting, perhaps, that lots of companies make interim announcements, often to their chagrin.
Because Elevance has stayed relatively quiet, olefin metathesis has been down there in the dark, too. And it is something special and worth learning about. After decades of development, the potential to create new specialty chemicals with properties that better fit new applications may be turning into commercial reality.
Do whole armies of pharmaceuticals, materials, fuels, coatings and more await us?
One thing is sure. No matter how promising a technology — it must reach scale, and commercial viability. And that – right there – makes this “coming out of the dark” all the more important and worth a shout-out.
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