Bio-based Acrylic Acid: Considerations for Commercial Viability and Success

Jun 24, 2014

The acrylic acid industry has seen significant change over the past two decades. With the closure of acetylene-based and acrylonitrile-based plants in the 1990s, the production of acrylic acid via two-stage propylene oxidation became the preferred and dominant method of production for acrylic acid producers, globally. Currently, licensors and technology holders of two-stage propylene oxidation technology are looking to improve their processes with new catalyst formulations, modifications to reactor design, and/or establishing operational best-practices through newly optimized parameters. The next decade, however, will give rise to a new wave of technologies – particularly, bio-based routes to acrylic acid.

The industry's drive towards more sustainable and renewable chemicals has resulted in the research and development of a number of “green” routes to acrylic acid. Beyond the inherent benefit of being a “green” process, bio-based routes have the potential to offer protection against petrochemical market volatility, which has been more recently associated with ethylene and propylene costs. As up-stream producers continue to tap into shale gas for lower-cost ethylene production, propylene availability – which largely relies on the pyrolysis of heaver feeds (e.g. naphtha) – has been limited, placing upwards pressure on price. The implementation of on-purpose propylene facilities via propane dehydrogenation is currently being leveraged as an alternative source of propylene. With successful implementation of their process routes and technology, bio-based acrylic acid have a chance to detach from the economic dependence on propylene – although this introduces different implications on feedstock dependence via alternative feeds (e.g., glycerol/glycerine, dextrose, sugars, corn, etc.)

Some routes hope to leverage a fully bio-based route to produce acrylic acid, while others utilize a combination of biosynthesis and chemical conversion. Although private and governmental sources of funding help provide the initial stimulus towards further research and commercialization of bio-based technologies, the success and market momentum of bio-based routes to acrylic acid has been limited by the experience and knowledge of the technology developers. As such, key partnerships and joint-ventures have developed, allowing all involved parties to benefit from continuity in industry knowledge.

For the bio-based production of acrylic acid via 3-hydroxypropionic acid, two strategic partnerships have developed:  Novozymes/Cargill/BASF and OPXBio/Dow.  Individually, these companies have isolated strengths –  whether in bio-synthesis/bio-engineering or as an established international producer and distributor of chemicals.  Even more so than standard joint ventures, these partnerships rely heavily on the know-how and assets that each individual company brings to the partnership.  For example, Novozymes and BASF can leverage Cargill’s understand of the agri-business (and especially its access to supply/distribution networks) to aid technology development and secure appropriate feedstock/raw material sourcing.  Larger partners, such as BASF or Dow can provide funding, industry experience, as well as design capability for downstream processing and purification of the product.  

A defining characteristic of the bio-based acrylic acid industry is the level of fragmentation amongst technology developers, each pursing different routes to acrylic acid from distinct starting materials.  While the development of an effective route with high yield is important,  the commercial viability and success of a bio-based route hinges on its competitiveness against currently implemented technologies (i.e., the conventional propylene-based route).  Most often, especially in the bio-based industry, the selected starting bio-material dictates the route’s market potential in the industry.  Arkema and Nippon Shokubai have invested heavily into the development of a route to produce acrylic acid from glycerol/glycerine (notably, for their own implementation as neither company intends to license this technology).  However, after reported success at the pilot scale, the further advancement and implementation of this route hinged on the availability and cost of glycerol/glycerine, which was impacted by legislative reforms regarding bio-fuels production (of which glycerol/glycerine is produced as a byproduct).

On the other hand, Novomer is pursuing a bio-adaptable process – a route to acrylic acid that utilizes proprietary catalysts developed to produce polypropiolactone from ethylene oxide (which can be either petchem- or bio-based) and carbon monoxide.  Polypropiolactone can then be converted to glacial acrylic acid via pyrolysis.  This route to acrylic acid presents a unique technology position, allowing Novomer’s potential facilities to operate simultaneously in the bio-based as well as petrochemical-based sectors.  This adaptability may be advantageous under volatile market conditions as well as during the transition from a dominant petchem-based industry towards one where bio-based chemicals are more readily available and cost competitive.

Nexant’s Biorenewable Insights report on Bio-based Acrylic Acid provides an in-depth review of the evolving bio-based acrylic acid industry. Six different bio-based routes to produce acrylic acid are presented and evaluated. Cost of production models assess technology benchmarking and regional cost competitiveness as well as the implications of their commercialization against conventional routes. Click here for more information on the Biorenewable Insights program.