Davis, Mercurius advance on ultra low-cost renewable chemicals

October 2, 2016 |

bd-ts-100316-mercurius-smIn California, Mercurius Biorefining has furthered its partnership with UC Davis to develop first-of-its-kind technology for production of furan-2,5-dicarboxylic acid (FDCA). While current approaches to the commercialization of FDCA use fructose as a feedstock, the Mercurius-UC Davis process operates from raw biomass.

Early cost estimates from the partners? “It will be lower in cost than competing processes,” says the Davis team.

Why FDCA?

A downstream product of 5-HMF, FDCA is the basis for PEF (polyethylene furanoate), a recyclable polymer with a wide range of applications including fibers and plastic containers. PEF is a promising replacement for PET (polyethylene terephthalate), and if you’re wondering why Coca-Cola invested in Avantium, its the clear plastic bottle application.

PEF has superior product properties such as an improved gas barrier, a higher modulus and a lower melting point compared to PET. But there’s more. PEF-based products can also be used use in the cosmetics, personal care, detergent and medical technology industries.

The growing FDCA market

Here’s the Weastra view on the addressable market for FDCA.

And here’s their view on FDCA’s actual projected markets in 2020, and the take-up for PET, polyamides, polycarbonates, plasticizers, polyester polyols, and a tiny market in solvents.

The players

So, far, renewable FDCA has been the domain of Avantium. The company raised €20M this spring, signed a JV agreement with BASF to develop commercial-scale production, and signed an offtake agreement with Mitsui to commercialize in Asia. BASF and Avantium said they would construct a first commercial with an annual capacity of up to 50,000 metric tons per year at BASF’s Verbund site in Antwerp, Belgium.

The aim is to build up world-leading positions in production and marketing of FDCA and PEF, and subsequently license the technology for industrial scale application developed by Avantium in its laboratories. Avantium and Mitsui have entered into a development and roll out agreement for PEF thin films in Asia and PEF bottles in Japan. Given its outstanding barrier performance, Avantium research demonstrates PEF can bring significant benefits as packaging material for oxygen sensitive goods such as food, beer and health care products.

But let’s not overlook AVA-CO2. We reported in May that the Swiss-based company has developed a new interface allowing for the use of different solvents which are tailored to the oxidation processes for producing FDCA on an industrial scale. This development enables a more flexible implementation of industrial 5-HMF and FDCA production. The new development will allow AVA-CO2 to use water as well as other solvents such as acetic acid in FDCA oxidation processes based on 5-HMF.

In 2019, AVA-CO2 will start production of 5-HMF / FDCA in an industrial production plant with a total capacity of 120,000 tonnes FDCA per year. In a first phase starting in 2019, the plant will produce 30,000 tonnes of FDCA to be use for specific PEF applications. First PEF products – based on 5-HMF produced by AVA-CO2 subsidiary company AVA Biochem – will be jointly-produced and tested with globally active partners from the value chain. A first financing round for the plant’s engineering work has already been completed.

There are others in the game. Recently, Weastra noted that Braskem, Petrobras, WARF, ADM, Battelle, ITRI, Canon, Air Water , Furanix, and Novamont among others have HMF or FDCA-related IP.

What’s interesting about the Mercurius-Davis gambit?

In a word, fructose. Or, rather, the lack of it. The implications on cost will be of wide interest. But also the advance in utilizing cellulosic biomass. With cellulosic sugar availability on an industrial scale becoming more real every day with projects from Comet and Renmatix among others, that’s significant.

What’s the source of a cost advantage? Mercurius’ process is conceptually “faster and less “finicky” than competitors,” in a nutshell.  The REACH technology is significantly faster than fermentation – taking 2-3 hours versus 2 or more days. While a few other methods (pyrolysis and gasification) are faster than REACH – they also must handle much higher volumes which require significantly higher capital investment. REACH is more robust than other processes with little sensitivity to impurities in feedstocks and with no use of delicate enzymes or bacteria.

Reactions from the stakeholders

Karl Seck, President of Mercurius Biorefining, said, “We are thrilled to work with UC Davis to develop this technology, further supporting production of biomaterials and realization of the circular carbon economy.”

Mark Mascal, Professor of Chemistry at UC Davis, commented, “We look very much forward to partnering with Mercurius Biorefining on the commercialization of this process, which will provide a value stream to support the development of the REACH biofuel technology.”

More about Mercurius’ technology

Mercurius Biorefining continues to develop the proprietary REACH technology at its pilot facility in Maine, converting cellulosic waste feedstock (e.g. organic portion of MSW, agriculture and forestry wastes) into a wide range of products such as drop-in, renewable diesel and aviation fuel. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Mercurius’ current project partners include the University of Maine and the Purdue University.

More on Mercurius.

 

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