Versalis and Genomatica Produce Bio-Rubber With Bio-Butadiene From Sugars 

February 16, 2016 |

BD-genomatica-021616-smBreakthrough accomplishments continue progress toward commercial plants 

In Italy, Versalis and Genomatica have successfully advanced to pilot-scale production of bio-butadiene (bio-BDE) from fully renewable feedstock. Versalis used this bio-BDE to make bio-rubber, specifically, bio-polybutadiene (bio-BR). “These accomplishments represent a remarkable milestone for the rubber industry,” the companies said in a statement, “by enabling an improved technological and sustainability footprint; and to the broader industry for butadiene, one of the most widely-used chemicals in the world, with over ten million tons produced per year.”

The success of this innovative undertaking results from a newly-developed process for the on-purpose production of butadiene which uses various types of sugars as feedstock, rather than the traditional use of hydrocarbon feedstocks. The project started with the establishment of a technology joint venture between Versalis and Genomatica in early 2013. The joint venture – with Versalis having the majority stake – has developed a complete process to make bio-BDE and plans to license the resulting technology.

The joint venture uses the proven and complementary strengths of both companies. Versalis and Genomatica together determined that 1,3-butanediol (1,3-BDO) was the most suitable intermediate to produce bio-BDE. Genomatica applied its ‘whole-process’ systems approach to bioengineering to develop a microorganism that produces 1,3-BDO in a way that enables cost-efficient, scalable fermentation, recovery and subsequent process operations. Versalis leverages its industrial process engineering and catalysis capabilities, plus expertise in overall polymer production, to purify the 1,3-BDO, dehydrate it and then purify the resulting butadiene. Versalis has produced several kilograms of butadiene from 1,3-BDO made in 200 liter fermenters at their research centers at Novara and Mantova, and then made bio-polybutadiene, at the Ravenna R&D centre, using both anionic and Ziegler-Natta catalysis.

Initial testing of the bio-BDE and bio-BR demonstrates good compatibility with industry standards. Versalis is continuing to test the bio-BDE within its other proprietary rubber and plastics downstream technologies such as SBR (Styrene-Butadiene Rubber), SBS (Styrene-Butadiene-Styrene Rubber) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene-Styrene).

The accomplishments demonstrates the common vision of the partners on the potential of this project: access to on-purpose butadiene from renewables will establish a competitive advantage and will ensure a strategic raw material from alternative feedstock, contributing at the same time to drive a greater sustainability profile for downstream applications in the plastics and rubber businesses.

Rewind to 2013

In April 2013, we reported that Versalis and Genomatica established a technology joint venture for bio-based butadiene from non-food biomass. The resulting process will be licensed across Europe, Asia and Africa by the newly-created joint venture. Versalis — the chemical subsidiary of Eni — aims at being the first to license the process and build commercial plants. It will also provide over $20 million in funding to Genomatica to support development of the integrated end-to-end process.

Future licensees of the process, including Versalis, will provide the capital required for the construction and operation of their own plants, and be responsible for use and sale of the resulting butadiene. Genomatica brings its expertise in biotechnology, particularly in engineering organisms and fermentation. Versalis brings its long-standing expertise in catalysis and process engineering.

Versalis, rebranded from the former Polimeri Europa, is the largest Italian chemical company and a subsidiary of Eni – and is the second largest producer of elastomers in Europe. With a 2012 production of 6.2 million tons, Versalis is also a leading producer of intermediates, polyethylene, and styrenics.

The LEGO connection?

From Denmark came the news last July that LEGO would replace its fossil-based plastics by 2030 with sustainable alternatives. The company announced that it will invest $150 million in the effort to cover research, development and implementation of new raw materials to manufacture LEGO elements as well as packaging materials. Currently, the company uses 6,000 tons per year of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) to manufacture more than 60 billion LEGO elements.

ABS is a blend — roughly, half styrene and the other half butadiene and acrylonitrile. Today, styrene is made from fossil fuels, via benzene and ethylene; butadiene is made primarily from butane; and acrylonitrile is made from ammonia and propylene.

So, think sustainable, renewable ammonia, benzene, propylene, ethylene, and butadiene — or, perhaps an alternative, high-performance novel molecule with similar cost and strength performance will be found.

A number of players have jumped into the early stages of the race for renewable butadiene. Genomatica/Versalis are hot on the trail. Also there’s LanzaTech/INVISTA, Arzeda/INVISTA and Global Bioenergies/Synthos. Axens, IFP Energies nouvelles and Michelin announced a partnership in 2013 to develop a bio-butadiene process. Back in 2011, Amyris announced a collaboration agreement with Kuraray to replace petroleum-derived feedstock such as butadiene and isoprene in the production of specified classes of high-performing polymers, but we haven’t heard much on that lately.

There Energy Security, what about Rubber Security?

When it comes to rubber, one of the first questions you might ask yourself is — why exactly isn’t the single major global source of natural rubber, the Brazilian rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis), grown commercially in Brazil? Yep, a pesky fungus took it out.

So, consider that the world is just one fungus away from losing Asian production — not an imminent threat, but a catalyst to develop alternatives. Here we look at the Rubber Security landscape.

The Bottom Line

Moving towards high-demand products — that’s the drift of this, and beginning that march towards scale that results in commercial-scale capacity-building. We don’t know how soon the green light will come — but  it can’t come soon enough for companies like LEGO.

More on the story.

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