GI Dynamics

Promoting a Circular and Sustainable Economy

The naturalist Sir David Attenborough has recently said climate change is humanity's greatest threat in thousands of years. He added that it could lead to the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of "much of the natural world". He was speaking at the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland on 3rd December 2018. The Conference report said that the world is now completely off track, heading more towards 3C rise this century rather than 1.5C. It further stated that keeping to the preferred target would need "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". If warming was to be kept to 1.5C this century, then emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be reduced by 45% by 2030. This is a very concerning statement and it is high time that there is a sincere effort to mitigate this.

Currently it takes only 13 years to add one billion people to the world population bringing with it alarming pollution levels. All the people produce a lot of waste. This waste comes from a wide range of chemical products extensively used in a variety of applications still often have fossil fuels as an origin. Despite being of organic origin, fossil fuels are non-renewable and keep getting depleted. Furthermore the processing and burning of fossil fuels is probably the largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Typically furniture, mattresses, diapers, plastic bottles and bags to name a few are being trashed everyday thus harming the environment especially the oceans affecting to a great extent the fish and other living organisms. These in turn are consumed by human beings thus making more and more people susceptible to diseases like cancer for one. This article makes a case for why it is essential, environment friendly and also remunerative to adopt the bio route for production of as many petrochemicals as possible. While there has been significant progress in generating renewable green power, there is very little progress in minimising the use of fossil fuels for petrochemicals.

Thus the urgency and need for new and renewable chemicals is more critical than ever before. Moreover processing biomass into chemicals offers a more sustainable way to obtain a wide variety of conventional end-products mitigating the negative effect on the environment (biomass even consumes CO2 while being processed)

While there is a realisation in general to move in this direction, the transition to a circular biobased economy is still not taking place. There is a lot of talk about long term developments or about technology of the future. There are also some niche companies that already have developed technologies but these are limited in their ability to promote these and bring them to fruition on a commercial scale. More over so far many initiatives have depended on subsidies to compete with the fossil based industry to become viable and profitable.

There is a distinct need to move away from subsidies as a driver and to develop business cases independent of such support.

The good news

The good news is that there is now a light at the end of the tunnel.

In line with national and international strategies and policies, Novomer has developed a technology which when combined with other bio technologies can bring together a fully renewable biochemical refinery using agricultural waste and biomass. These are then bio-processed to produce bio-degradable polymers.

The fully integrated process can convert biobased feedstock which is a key asset in countries like India. This feedstock is converted to ethanol. The biomass such as corn or corn stover is not a finite resource like oil and gas. Biomass requires Carbon dioxide to grow. The complete life cycle of ethanol production therefore potentially has a lower, neutral or even negative carbon footprint, which makes it a sustainable technology especially when compared to the petrochemical route. Such projects will be game changers. These plants are flexible which means that one can start with first generation feedstock like sugarcane, sugarbeet, etc. and then move on to 2nd and 3rd generation feedstock.

Range of feedstocks can be used to produce ethanol. These can be preheated and then processed through high heat and converted into smaller particles before going through the saccharification process where enzymes and water are added to release the sugars in the lignocellulose so as to ferment the sugars into ethanol. Further distillation and evaporation to produce the ethanol vapor which can then be fed to downstream production units. Admittedly at present only first generation plants are fully competitive as compared to fossil based units, but there has been so much development work that second and third generation plants should soon be in this league.

Until now the major use of ethanol is in the liquor industry and as fuel or fuel additive. In the case of use as a fuel additive the issue is that these are again burnt producing CO2 which is a greenhouse gas.

However, ethanol is a versatile building block for biorefineries, and can be used for the direct production of several chemicals

Figure 1 – Potential chemicals from Ethanol

[endif]--Figure 1 herein shows potential chemicals that can be derived from ethanol. However, only some of the direct ethanol-to-chemical conversion technologies have at present industrial implementation.

The others either have not been (yet) proven commercially, or still require further research and development of the process itself or catalytic component involved.

Amongst all the potential chemicals that can be produced from ethanol, ethylene stands out as the best option for the present since this route of catalytic dehydration has been commercially established. Ethylene is one of the most important and versatile building blocks in the chemical industry in terms of downstream derivatives. The global production of ethylene exceeds that of any other organic compounds. Reported global production in 2016 was around 150 million tons. Key end- products for ethylene are polyethylene, ethylene oxide, ethylene dichloride and ethylbenzene.

Bio-Ethylene Oxide enables production of other valuable bio products such as MEG (mono ethylene glycol). This is a well- established commercially proven process. According to IndianPetroChem report on MEG,” Reliance Industries Limited, Indian Oil Corporation Limited and India Glycols Limited are the chief MEG manufacturers in the domestic market. Though production has seen a modest growth, it is not enough to meet domestic demand. India's limited domestic production mandates users and distributors to procure MEG through imports. Hence, there is a lucrative opportunity for investors to cater to this demand.”

New and niche products

A new and niche product group on the market are propiolactones, mainly being β-Propiolactone (BPL) and Polypropiolactone (PPL). BPL can be produced by combining Ethylene Oxide and Carbon Monoxide (CO) under catalytic conditions.

BPL is an organic compound of the lactone family, with a four-membered ring. The word propiolactone usually refers to BPL Due to its structure BPL is a reactive molecule, which polymerizes easily. It is furthermore a chemical intermediate which can be used for several end products. It is for example still industrially used for the production of β-alanine, which is used as a biochemical supplement.

Polypropiolactone (PPL) is the polymer of BPL

Since our target is to produce 100% biobased end products, the feedstock for CO production needs to have a biobased source. CO production through biomass gasification is a technology available in the market. By using biomass such as wood chips, pellets or RDF (refuse derived fuel ) in a reactor, raw syngas can be produced. This raw syngas can be further treated to remove sulfur and sulfur compounds, and CO can be separated and purified in a cold box to produce pure CO required for the next stage in the process. Gasification technology is considered environment friendly and efficient, in addition it is flexible with respect to feedstock quality and allows use of mixed feedstocks. More over the gasification of low-value feedstock or waste materials is an attractive option.

With the technology developed by Novomer the Ethylene Oxide and Carbon Monoxide can be further process to produce Beta propiolactone. As you can see from Fig.2 there are a host of biochemical products that can be obtained from the Beta propiolactone like:

  • Polyhydroxyls

  • Isocyanates

  • Polypropiolactone which is then processed to Acrylic acid

  • C3,C4 Diol polymers for Fibers

Figure 2 – Courtesy Novomer Inc.

Competitive biorefineries

Figure 3 gives an aerial view of the way the individual process units are laid out in such a complex:

Figure 3 – Courtesy G.I. Dynamics BV, The Netherlands

In order to make the whole complex bio-based the Utility requirements like Electric Power and Steam need also to be generated by either solar power or by using biomass (RDF, wood pellets, wood chips, molasses etc.)

Refer Fig 4 wherein is shown schematically how with the combination of Solar Power and a Biomass reactor biobased steam and power needed for the complex can be generated.

Figure 4 Courtesy INTEC Engineering GmbH

In an article Global Renewable Energy Trends, Deloitte have concluded that Renewable Energy is rapidly becoming a preferred “mainstream” energy source. As they reach price and performance parity with conventional sources, they demonstrate their ability to enhance grids. Solar and wind power now come closest to meeting three energy consumer priorities: reliability, affordability and environmental responsibility. Furthermore there are grate firing systems using biomass that in combination with solar power make power generation independent of the weather. Thus a hybrid solar -biomass plant provides fail safe energy for 24 hour operation.

Typically fuels used are:

  • Fresh and residual wood, bark, old wood

  • Veneer peeling waste and cutting waste

  • MDF and chipboard waste

  • Grinding dust and saw dust

  • Biomass (fruit and cereal bowls, bagasse, straw, chaff etc.)

Conclusions and recommendations:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that in order to meet the energy needs, India is targeting 40 per cent of its electricity generation from non-fossil fuel by 2030. He said that along with solar and wind power, the country is also working on B3 (Biomass-Biofuel-Bioenergy) to replace the reliance on polluting coal. Also he declared that by 2022 India will generate 175GW of renewable power out of which 100GW will be solar based.

This logic needs extension to biobased petrochemicals as well. As far as India is concerned, we have to bear in mind that if we follow the conventional route, there is a drain on the foreign exchange resources as the starting point whjch is crude needs to be imported from other countries. There is also an impact from the vagaries of oil pricing. The prediction of the several independent sources indicate that crude oil prices will be steadily rising in the short- to medium-term perspective (up to 2025). The extent and the actual figures may vary, but the trend is going to stay consistent. An investment in biobased industries could prepare the nation for a long-term disruption in supplies of imported oil and help to diversify feedstock sources that support the nation's industrial base.

In addition a biobased route will minimise the dependence on imported oil and mitigate the issues related to environment. Most of the nations including India have signed the Paris accord committing to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also an increasing need to cut down waste, increase recycling as well as produce renewable biobased products. Thus irrespective of the price of oil, one needs to follow the biobased route. Many multinationals have already realised this and are even willing to pay a premium for biobased products. As the education and the awareness levels increase among the people, biobased products will start getting used even at a premium payment as can already be seen in the West.

Why not resolve then that also as many petrochemical products as possible will be biobased starting with bio-ethylene, bio-ethylene oxide and biopolypropiolactone in an integrated biocomplex. It is pertinent to note that PPL is used to manufacture superabsorbent polymers further used to produce diapers and pampers. There will be a great demand in the coming future for these by the growing and ageing population in time to come.

G.I. Dynamics B.V., based in the Netherlands, specializes in providing technology, integrated solutions and advisory to make the oil, gas and chemical industry more efficient and more sustainable. Furthermore, together with a broad network of partners the company develops biorefineries around the globe, and provides additional advisory services like Life Cycle Analysis, Project Management Consultancy and Business & Financial Modeling.

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