Sugar, sugar: Toray, Mitsui set out to build monster cellulosic sugar plant in Asia

January 16, 2017 |

BD TS 011717 Mitsuit Toray cover sm

Last week we reported that Toray Industries has teamed with Mitsui to produce cellulosic sugars from bagasse leftover from the sugar production process at Thai sugar mills.

The companies will invest up to $51 million to build one of the world’s largest bagasse-based cellulosic sugar plants. Producing 1,400 tons of cellulosic sugar annually that will be used as feedstock for ethanol, it will also produce 450 tons of oligosaccharides and 250 tons of polyphenol for foods and fodder when it comes online in August 2018.

So, how do you make industrial biotechnologies work in Asia

Bottom line, you can’t exclusively use expensive first-gen sugars to make products like succinic acid, or PBT, or PET, without monetizing the reduction in carbon emissions. The net yield of PET (which doesn’t contain any biomass-derived  oxygen) from C6 sugars (which are roughly 40% oxygen by weight), is generally too low to compete on price with $50 oil.

So, time to look at cellulosic sugars. There. you have three concerns.

1. What will I pay for it?

2. Will I have to aggregate it?

3. Will my process work with it?

If you answered “a lot”, “yes and “not very well” to the above, you’re not going to be successful in the advanced bioeconomy for some time. You need positive responses for at least two out of the three.

Sustainable, available, affordable: pick two out of three (usually)

MSW is cheap (even negative cost) and aggregated, but inconsistent and tough to work with. Corn stover is cheap, but can be tough to work with and are not aggregated. Wood is cheap and aggregated, but can be tough to work with for a lot of finicky microbes. Waste CO2 can be found for next to nothing and is reasonably well aggregated if you partner with an industrial emitter, but very few processes can yet work with it — algae’s travails are well-known in this regard.

Which brings us to feedstocks like carbon monoxide, which is cheap, aggregated and LanzaTech has figured out how to work with it. The problem they have is getting carbon regimes to recognize the benefits of recycling “second chance carbon”. Methane is cheap and aggregated and there are microbes that are getting reasonably good at producing products like single-cell protein from it. But excepting renewable biogas, it’s a fossil fuel, and runs afoul of carbon-slashing regimes that pooh-pooh “cleaner” feedstocks.

Which brings us, next, to sugarcane bagasse.

So long as you can make it work in your process, it’s aggregated and essentially the entire cost of sugarcane processing is already allocated to sugar production, so it’s cheap. There may be limitations on availability of bagasse is combusted to proved power for the refinery.

So, it’s mighty attractive as a feedstock, and Thailand is the world’s fourth-largest producer of sugarcane and the government is pro-biotechnology as a driver of economic growth. So, it makes sense.

Mitsui’s Strategic steps

For some time we’ve been watching Mitsui’s considerable activities in the bioeconomy with great interest.

In December 2010, we reported that Mitsui Engineering teamed with local Sime Darby Research Sdn. Berhad to build and operate a demonstration plant to produce ethanol from palm oil Empty Fruit Bunches using a combination of Mitsui’s technology and Inbicon’s second generation biomass refinery technology. The facility will process 1.25 metric tons of fruit bunches per day.

Later that year, we reported in June 2011 that LanzaTech signed a MOU with Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute, to introduce LanzaTech’s proprietary gas fermentation technology throughout the Mitsui Group.

The Big BioAmber partnership

Big news arrived in late 2011 when we reported that BioAmber and Mitsui had partnered to build and operate the previously announced manufacturing facility in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. The partners intended to subsequently expand capacity and produce 35,000 metric tons of succinic acid and 23,000 metric tons of 1,4 butanediol (BDO) on the site.

The plant arrived on line a little later than that, but did arrive, and is a commercial-scale succinic acid production facility today. And in February 2016, we reported that Mitsui invested an additional CDN$25 million in the BioAmber joint venture for 10% of the equity, increasing its stake from 30% to 40%.

2014: Expanding the LanzaTech relationship

In March 2014, we reported that LanzaTech raised $60M in a first close of its series D investment round. Led by Mitsui & Co. with a $20M investment.

We reported in September 2015 that Jayant Agro, a leading Indian castor oil and castor based derivatives manufacturer, Mitsui Chemicals and Japan’s Itoh Oil Chemicals Co. together entered into a Joint Venture Agreement for Investing in the equity Shares of Vithal Castor Polyols.

But the biggest news of the year came late, when we reported in December 2015 that Avantium signed an agreement with Mitsui & Co., Ltd. to commercialize 100% biobased chemicals FDCA and PEF in Asia. As part of this agreement, Mitsui was granted a right to purchase a sizable volume of FDCA from the first commercial FDCA plant to be constructed by Avantium. Avantium and Mitsui entered into a development and roll out agreement for PEF thin films in Asia and PEF bottles in Japan.

Toray’s Strategic steps

Toray has had a long-term but somewhat more focused interest in the advanced bioeconomy. They’ve been a long-term partner of Gevo, dating back to Gevo’s IPO. And they have proved successful production of their downstream products using Genomatica’s BDO in 2013.

Perhaps most importantly, Toray is a partner in the Virent consortium to produce renewable PX and biofuels from sugars. The Virentstrategic Consortium includes Tesoro, Toray, Johnson Matthey and The Coca-Cola Company focused on completing the development and scale up of Virent’s BioForming technology to produce low carbon bio-based fuels and bio-paraxylene (a key raw material for the production of 100% bio-polyester). More on that here.

We reported on that in April 2013: Toray successfully made a partially bio-based PBT (polybutylene terephthalate) using 1,4-butanediol (BDO) from Genomatica’s bio-based process technology. PBT is a plastic resin found in electrical connectors and plugs, automobile parts such as switches and ignition coils, keyboard caps, bobbins, shower-heads, and lately has been found in plastic chopsticks. It has good electrical properties, mechanical properties such as tensile strength and tensile elasticity and well-balanced physical properties such as heat resistance. It’s marketed as Toraycon by Toray.

Overall, we’ve seen the greatest interest in 100%, fully renewable PET, for the clear plastic bottle market.

We reported as far back as 2011 that Toray succeeded in producing laboratory-scale samples of the world’s first fully renewable biobased PET fiber by using fully renewable biobased PET derived from biobased para-xylene from Gevo.  Toray used terephthalic acid synthesized from Gevo’s biobased para-xylene and commercially available renewable mono ethylene glycol (MEG) as raw materials. Toray used this technology to produce their new fiber.

We reported in June 2014 that Gevo had commenced selling paraxylene to Toray, which expects to produce fibers, yarns, and films from Gevo’s PX.

2012: An interest in renewable nylon

In February 2012, we reported that Ajinomoto and Toray were conducting joint research for manufacturing the nylon raw material 1,5-pentanediamine from the amino acid lysine produced from plant materials by Ajinomoto using fermentation technology, and commercializing a biobased nylon made from this substance. The two companies had already carried out successful test production of 1,5-PD using Ajinomoto’s feed-use lysine, as well as test production of biobased nylon made by polymerizing 1,5-PD.

The bottom line

So, there’s clear plastic – take your pick between PET and FDCA. There’s succinic acid as a platform to make anything from nylons to BDO. There’s PBT, made from BDO. And there’s ethanol and a series of renewable chemicals that can be made from the LanzaTech process.

That’s a lot of tech — all of it highly advantaged by finding more cheap carbon, and in the case of the clear plastics opportunity, all of it advantaged by finding cheap cellulosic sugars. Bottom line, Mitsui and Toray see an opportunity in becoming more vertically integrated in terms of aggregating feedstock, rather than waiting for the likes of Comet and Renmatix to reach scale and get to Asia.

For more on the Strategic Intent

In a recent webinar, we looked at the strategic intent of Mars and Mitsui in their investments in the advanced bioeconomy. The slide deck can be viewed here..

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