Monday, 28 March 2011

Microreactors gain interest

This blog has already commented on the attraction of microreactors for greener chemical production, noting recently that one of the winners of the ICIS Innovation Awards - Oxford Catalysts - won it for microreactor developments.  Now market research firm Frost & Sullivan has released a fascinating study into the uptake of this technology.

Oxford Catalysts' microreactor
Says Frost & Sullivan: "The advent of microreactors makes it easier to conduct one-step reactions. Hence, the conventional chemical reactions that produce by-products and waste products can easily be utilized in microreactors to eliminate these alternate reactions, thereby preparing high-quality products.

"Moreover, the fast reaction rates ensure higher yields of up to 100% with high quality and no side reactions. Product quality is enhanced through the accurate control of operation parameters such as pressure, temperature and space velocities."

Oxford Catalysts' raising of a further £21m for future development bodes well for its efforts in biofuels and Fischer-Tropsch reactions in microreactors. Many other players are looking at the technology, which, says the report, has high potential. It points out though that there are risks in implementation:

"The scope for microreactors in fuel and chemical processing is high. However, the non-availability of any commercial demonstration unit that can be retrofitted to an existing facility prevents manufacturers from taking a huge financial risk in their facilities."

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Alternative feedstocks for petrochemicals

On the occasion of the NPRA's annual International Petrochemicals Conference in San Antonio, Texas, taking place as I write this in the conference hotel, ICIS editor Doris de Guzman has written a piece on progress towards bio-based feedstocks as an alternative to crude oil-derived materials.

The article appeared in a special publication ICIS produced for NPRA and delegates to the meeting.

Half a dozen US-based companies are well on the way to producing ethylene, propylene, butanediol and even adipic and acrylic acid from bio-materials, all of which can be used as inputs for downstream green chemicals. Doris reviews progress at these innovative companies in the article, and points to who is now moving to demonstration stage and beyond.

Says Doris: "The petrochemical sector will soon have an array of renewable raw materials to choose from, as companies gear up to commercialization through partnerships. Biobased chemicals activities are at fever pitch this year, as several start-up companies step up their efforts towards commercialization phase."

In the biobased intermediates, products such as acrylic acid, adipic acid, 1,4-butanediol (BDO) and succinic acid are among those that are considered frontrunners in advancing product and process development.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

SusChem annual meeting approaches

Chemical and biotech industry innovators and regulators will be meeting in Amsterdam for the 7th annual SusChem stakeholder meeting on 17 May.  The agenda focuses on the role the industry can play in sustainable growth, in the context of the EU's 2020 strategy.

The industry will be making its case to establish a couple of European Innovation Partnerships

SusChem, the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry, involves trade bodies Cefic and EuropaBio and was set up in 2004 as part of the European Commission's initiative to spur innovation across industry sectors in the EU.

The technology platform has already produced:
  • engagement with the wider stakeholder community in an open dialogue; 
  • an integrated, shared vision of a more sustainable future EU chemical industry;
  • an Implementation Action Plan that provides recommendations for mobilisation of resources for collaborative R&D, on sustaining a strong European chemical science base and on improvements for EU innovation framework conditions.

ICIS Innovation Awards 2011 launch nears

As well as my role as Chemicals and Innovation blogger at ICIS, I also run the ICIS Innovation Awards each year. March is always a busy time as I prepare to launch the Awards, now in their 7th year, on 18 April. The call for entries will appear in ICIS Chemical Business and on the icis.com website from that day, with a deadline for entries of 4 July.

Dow Corning has worked with ICIS over these years to sponsor the competition, designed to celebrate the best in innovation in the chemical sector. This year again they will take the lead sponsor role.

This year, we have a new category focusing on sustainability and a new sponsor to go with it, in the form of DSM. Sponsors from last year - CRA (Best Products) and U.S.Chemicals (Innovation with Best Environmental Benefit) - are also supporting the Awards again this year.

For full details of previous winners and the sponsors, you can go to www.icis.com/awards. I encourage all of you in companies to take a look and enter this year.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Evonik "white bio" day hails above average growth

In a recent white biotechnology day, attend by some 200 people, Germany's Evonik noted that the sector will see above average growth for the industry. It's a message that seems to be gaining momentum, but perhaps more so in rhetoric than in practice.

Evonik argues that the use of renewable raw materials presents special opportunities and prospects for the chemical industry. "Industrial biotechnology provides new approaches to manufacturing novel products with useful properties, or to manufacturing, for example, polymer building blocks and active ingredients by entirely different means. Because it is highly energy- and resource-efficient, white biotechnology is often an alternative to conventional chemical processes."

In the health, nutrition and cosmetic markets, there are constantly new growth opportunities for bio-based products, it adds, showing that white biotechnology has above-average growth prospects. Besides the economic growth opportunities through biotechnology, the event also centered around "renewable resources."

Evonik opens its Science-to-Business Center Biotechnology in January 2007 at its Marl site in Germany, where a host of experts from various disciplines are conducting research in “white biotechnology” in close cooperation with the business units and service units and a large number of external cooperation partners.

By conceiving new biotechnological products and processes, the center seeks to future-proof the core business of Evonik’s Chemicals Business Area. Biotechnological processes, unlike chemical processes, are notable primarily for their low investment costs. This means, for example, that a single bacterium can be used to perform multi-stage production sequences. The bacteria serve as “microbial cell factories.”

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Pepsico makes all renewable "PET" bottle

Pepsi has unveiled a PET-type bottle produced entirely from renewable resources, although it is not indicating how it has achieved the look-alike molecule for the polymer. All it says in its release is that: Combining biological and chemical processes, PepsiCo has identified methods to create a molecular structure that is identical to petroleum-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which results in a bottle that looks, feels and protects its product identically to existing PET beverage containers.

PepsiCo says its "green" bottle is 100% recyclable and far surpasses existing industry technologies. The bottle is made from bio-based raw materials, including switch grass, pine bark and corn husks.

In future, the company expects to broaden the renewable sources used to create the "green" bottle to include orange peels, potato peels, oat hulls and other agricultural byproducts from its foods business.

The announcement has sparked plenty of interest amongst bio-based economy followers, given the scale of Pepsi's operations. PepsiCo will pilot production of the new bottle in 2012.  Upon successful completion of the pilot, the company intends to move directly to full-scale commercialization.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Dow boosts innovation in Saudi Arabia

Dow Chemical has finalised its plans to invest in innovation in Saudi Arabia through support of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). A comprehensive cooperation agreement signed this week establishes Dow's Middle East and Africa R&D Center on the university's campus at KAUST.

Markus Wildi heads up Dow Chemical
in the Middle East
Dow and KAUST will collaborate on a range of academic research programs tailored to KAUST's areas of excellence in research and education. In particular, Dow will conduct R&D in the KAUST Innovation Cluster facilities until a permanent Dow facility in the KAUST Research Park is completed. Research will initially focus on water, water treatment technologies and oil and gas, and later expanding to include fields of study pertaining to infrastructure.

Dow will provide opportunities and funding to educate and train citizens of Saudi Arabia. Dow has already offered academic development opportunities and extended permanent offers of employment to KAUST students and will continue to do so. Dow will also provide financial support for research challenge competitions. Firstly, in alignment with Dow's 2015 Sustainability Goals, KAUST will administer the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Research Challenge Program, which recognizes and rewards students for their innovation and research of sustainable solutions to the world's most pressing social, economic and environmental problems.

Dow's Middle East president Markus Wildi, said, "the Dow R&D Center at KAUST is a reflection of our commitment to the intellectual and human potential of this distinguished institution. Our collaboration agreement lends strong support to the notion that Saudi Arabia will become an engine of innovation and a generator of solutions for modern developmental challenges like clean water supply and sustainable living."

Monday, 14 March 2011

Dow studies bio-based propylene routes

Here's an interesting article from an ICIS colleague, Anna Jagger, on Dow Chemical's quest to source feestocks for its downstream slate from bio-sources. In this case, it's looking for ways of making propylene, to support its already proven bio-route to ethylene.

As well as developing the necessary process technologies, the company is examining which bio-based products it would be able to sell at a premium. "Each of the regions is looking from a markets point of view," said Theresa Kotanchek (left), Dow vice president for sustainable technologies and innovation sourcing. "We're examining an array of raw materials."

Dow sees opportunities in sectors including personal care, cleaning products and the replacement of phthalates as plasticizers, Kotanchek said. "The opportunities cut across multiple end-use markets," she added.

It is early days. Dow's research and development (R&D) teams are investigating which bio-derived products the company should be focusing on. The research is still exploratory, explained John Biggs, R&D development director for Dow's hydrocarbon and energy group in Latin America.

Friday, 11 March 2011

BASF, RWE, Linde extend carbon capture

The chemical industry continues to show it can provide solutions to the problem or global warming. In Germany, BASF and Linde have been working with RWE Power to develop carbon capture technology to remove carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases of a lignite-fed power station at Niederaussem.

Already underway for four years, the project has just been extended, with another 6m euros invested, to optimise the scrubbing agents and equipment.

Different scrubbing agents have been tested since the pilot plant was commissioned in 2009, in three test phases of six months each, to identify an optimum solvent developed by BASF. Compared with processes commonly used, the energy input can be reduced by about 20% when using the new chemical solvent for CO2 capture.

The new scrubbing agent also comes with increased stability and resistance to oxygen. This reduces the solvent consumption substantially.

In the test phase starting now and lasting to 2013, the structure of the CO2 absorber will be optimised by Linde so that carbon dioxide can be removed more effectively from the flue gas.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

New entrant for bio-ethylene

The petrochemical industry's search for sustainable feedstocks has prompted another major producer to look at sourcing ethylene from sugars, via ethanol, so as to be able to make polymers such as polyethylene and PET with a "green" credential.

Braskem’s new green ethylene plant in Triunfo
The technology is already in use in Brazil, where sugar cane has long been used as a source of ethanol. Braskem and Dow Chemical have separately announced plans to make ethylene and polymers using this route. And Solvay has plans to make PVC from bio-ethylene in the country.

Now, in Europe, Total Petrochemicals has developed proprietary catalyst for converting ethanol into ethylene, in association with IFP Energies nouvelles and its Axens subsidiary.

The new technology will open the way, Total says, to "competitive production of bio-ethylene from renewable resources with lower energy consumption and lower CO2 emissions." It is expected that the technology will be ready for industrial implementation around end of 2011.

The alliance also covers production of other olefinic monomers from bio-derived higher alcohols which will be developed in parallel within the same technology platform.

“With this new approach we will be able to respond to a growing demand for plastics based on renewable raw-materials. Efficient alcohol dehydration will broaden the commercial potential of all the on-going developments in the production of second generation bio-based alcohols and contribute to sustainable application of such forms of bio-based feedstock”, says Bernadette Spinoy, Total Petrochemicals senior vice president for base chemicals.


Friday, 4 March 2011

Bio-economy needs supply chain innovation

Chemical companies are striving to embrace bio-based production to ensure their long-term sustainability. But there are many issues to resolve and questions to answer.

Most, if not all, major chemical producers and major agriculture combines are looking at the potential for renewable raw materials to replace petrochemical feedstocks, in some areas of their operations at least.

And it is not just the majors that are investing heavily into the required technologies. Small, hi-tech start-ups are often leading the way in technology terms. Many have been lured in and supported by the huge political push in North America and Europe for alternative fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel.

But increasingly, these firms are focusing on devising routes to chemicals from biomass, as the market and prospects for further fuels investment stalls due to concerns over subsidies and the nonfood use of crops.

The stimulus from the fuels sector to the use of renewable raw materials to make existing and new chemicals and materials has been beneficial, however. Not only has it kick-started production on a scale not seen before, but it has begun to show how the logistics of using crop-derived materials might be managed to enable widespread production of chemical inter-mediates and products such as polymers, surfactants, solvents and lubricants.

The problem is that in the main, the feedstocks - starches, sugars, cellulose and oils and fats - are produced in rural areas, away from industrial production centres, and in low density. Thus the bulky raw materials have to be transported over some distances, adding significant costs and environmental impacts.

Before the bio-based economy can truly begin to play a significant part in industrial output, such problems will need to be solved at technical and economic levels.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Innovation ahead for hair dyes?

Technological progress may be fast-paced in many fields, but one mundane area has been almost left in the doldrums for the last 150 years: The basic technology for permanently colouring hair.

That's the conclusion of an analysis of almost 500 articles and patents on the chemistry of permanent hair dyeing, which foresees much more innovation in the years ahead, including longer lasting, more-natural-looking dyes and gene therapy to reverse the grey.

The article appears in ACS's journal Chemical Reviewswhere Robert Christie and Olivier Morel note that hair dyes are poised for expansion in the future due to the greying of a global population.

Most permanent hair colouring technology, apparently, is based on a 150-year-old approach that uses p-phenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical that produces darker, browner shades when exposed to air. Concern over the safety of PPD and other hair dye ingredients, and demand for more convenient hair dyeing methods, has fostered an upswing in research on new dyes and alternative hair colouring technologies.

The scientists describe progress toward those goals. Future hair colouring techniques include nano-sized colorants, for instance. Composed of pigments 1/5,000th the width of a human hair, they will penetrate the hair and remain trapped inside for longer-lasting hair colouration.

Scientists also are developing substances that stimulate the genes to produce the melanin pigment that colours hair. These substances promise to produce a wider range of more natural-looking colours, from blond to dark brown and black, with less likelihood of raising concerns about toxicity and better prospects for more natural results.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Oxford Catalysts raises £21m

As the organiser of the ICIS Innovation Awards each year, it's always rewarding to see winning companies making progress with their innovations. This week, Oxford Catalysts, winner of the SME category in 2009 has raised a further £21m in funding to progress its innovative microreactor technology that can be used to convert biomass and biowaste into syngas ready for conversion into fuels and materials.

The microreactor is very compact
The technology is particularly appropriate as it enables the conversion to be carried out on a local scale, without transport of the biomass. It can also be used to convert stranded fossil fuels such as shale gas.

As the UK startup company says, "with moves towards development of vast shale gas reserves in North America, the increasing focus on the utilisation of stranded and associated gas and the growing interest in biomass-to- liquids (BTL) and waste-to-liquids (WTL) technology, the need to develop distributed technologies such as microchannel processing is more important than ever."  

Microchannel reactors – compact reactors that have channels with diameters in the millimetre range lie at the heart of microchannel processing technology because they intensify chemical reactors, enabling them to occur at rates 10 to 1000 times faster than in conventional systems. 

The Oxford Catalysts Group’s FT technology to produce biofuels has been demonstrated in G├╝ssing, Austria since the summer of 2010 in partnership with SGC Energia, SGPS, S.A. (SGCE). In addition, the Group’s steam methane reforming (SMR) technology is due to be demonstrated in summer 2011 along with the Group’s FT technology in a six barrel per day integrated gas-to-liquids (GTL) pilot plant at a Petrobras refinery in Fortaleza, Brazil. 

The Group received its first order for a commercial scale FT microchannel reactor and highly active FT catalyst in December 2010. It expects that further commercial sales of its microchannel and catalyst technologies to multiple partners will follow in 2011.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Open innovation thoughts

Gwen Ruta
This interesting post came my way this morning, offering some thoughts on open innovation and why it is important.

It is written by Environmental Defense Fund's Gwen Ruta and first appeared on FastCompany's Expert Bloggers series.

EDF and Innocentive recently announced a partnership aimed at accelerating environmental innovation in business.