Publication: Steel Times International
Published: August 13, 2012
Author: Jim Lane
The maker of nylon products such as Lycra and Dacron teams with LanzaTech to produce a vital intermediate, butadiene.
Can you really make a parachute from blast furnace waste gases?
In Kansas, LanzaTech and top nylon producer INVISTA (think Lycra and Dacron) have inked a joint development agreement to develop one-step and two-step technologies to convert industrial waste gas carbon monoxide into butadiene. Initial commercialization is expected in 2016.
Butadiene: what exactly does it do?
Butadiene is an important intermediate chemical used in the production of synthetic rubber and various plastics. It is also a key intermediate chemical used by INVISTA for the production of adiponitrile (ADN), which in turn is a critical intermediate chemical used in the manufacture of nylon 6,6.
LanzaTech’s 15,000 gallon per year pilot facility at a New Zealand steel mill produces ethanol and 2,3 BDO from waste carbon monoxide gas. In Shanghai, China, LanzaTech’s 100,000-gallon-per-year demonstration uses waste gases from a Baosteel steel mill to produce ethanol.
How to get there from here
In the long-term, the partners will focus on engineering LanzaTech’s organisms to make butadiene directly from gases; near-term, they will optimize what the organism already knows how to do – make 2,3-butanediol and then turn that into butadiene using a thermochemical conversion, which LanzaTech has already demonstrated in its work with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; at this stage, what the partners will focus on for the initial step is improving the process to make the economics work. (The diol group of macroglycols are, themselves, intermediates used in the production of Spandex – butadiene itself is generally used to make the aforementioned nylon 6,6, and synthetic rubber – and yes, butadiene is a critical intermediate for products such as nylon parachutes).
INVISTA and LanzaTech will also develop tools to extend the technology to the direct production of other industrial chemicals, including nylon intermediates.
Specialty vs bulk chemicals
Interesting point of differentiation between LanzaTech’s new foray into renewable chemicals, and that is the focus on bulk as opposed to specialty chemicals.
It’s notable, because going to scale (and ultimately fuels) is harder via the specialty chemical route – because the economics of specialty chemicals can get blown out by new companies saturating the market with added capacity as they scale up towards fuel-scale production. By contrast, bulk chemicals offer markets that are large enough to continue to offer good prices, even as new producers begin to reach fuel-scale. Clever.
LanzaTech’s path to commercialization
Currently on LanzaTech’s radar are four projects. First, the existing demonstration project with BaoSteel in Shanghai, using waste gases from steel production, with a capacity of 100,000 gallons. The company has been reporting “great progress at Bao” on key milestones and expects to reach all of them by October.
First commercial plant is expected to be sited in or near Beijing, also in combination with Bao Steel and using a combination of feedstocks from several steel mills. The next project is expected to be sited in India using MSW, which will require the use of a biomass gasifier – hence the company has placed that farther down the list so that process improvement can resolve some of the economic challenges of biomass gasification, over the next year. Fourth project for the company will take it to Soperton, Georgia and its Freedom Pines facility, where it will use woody biomass as a feedstock and, again, utilize a gasifier.
Where’s natural gas in all of this? It’s being worked on – one of a portfolio of options. An advantage for LanzaTech if and when they roll out with natural gas is that, after working with steel gas off-gases, their microorganisms are going to be robust enough that they will require de minimis natural gas clean-up.
Note the extensive feedstock diversity in the company’s approach. Oh, the heartache elsewhere this year from all the folk who have commercialized or gone on capacity-building rampages based on one feedstock alone. This year, it’s corn in the United States, where a 10.8 billion bushel projected US harvest – the smallest since 1996 – has prompted widespread calls for suspension, waive-down or outright repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Last year, it was Brazil that went through its troubles with sugarcane harvests, which continue into this season. Before that it was cane harvest yields in India, or palm expansion in Indonesia; before that, it was the rise in soybean prices that tipped so many biodiesel producers into hard times, or the progress in greases from a zero-cost feedstock to something that became pricey.
The conclusion here in Digestville? There is never, ever going to be a perfect harvest-year, and feedstock diversification is crucial for the industry and, vitally, for every company.
The controversy over corn
This year it is corn. The US harvest conditions prompted FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva to call for a suspension of the US RFS2. It’s prompted strong reaction from industry trade assocaitinos
“The United Nations call for a suspension of the RFS is unwarranted,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president for BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section. “Long-term policy changes are not the answer to short-term conditions. Solutions proposed to-date will provide no immediate relief to animal producers or farmers impacted by the drought, but Congressional action could have unintended economic impacts on farmers and biofuel producers over several years.”
“The U.N. is propagating misinformation,” said Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis. “The 40 percent figure cited (by Graziano da Silva) is the gross amount of corn purchased by the ethanol industry, which not only produces ethanol from the corn, but also high value, low-cost livestock and poultry feed. The net amount of corn used by our biorefineries is 16 percent.”
“To suggest an immediate suspension of America’s Renewable Fuel Standard would simply be doing the bidding of Big Oil and Big Food. Even the food companies have said that corn is only a very minor cost of production and that high oil prices are the real driver of increased food costs. The most effective way to ensure that people across the globe have affordable food is to have farmers earning a fair price for their crops, so that corn and other commodities can create jobs and opportunities across the world.”
The bottom line on feedstock optionality
Whatever your feelings about the state of debate over access to corn starch – it is this year’s debate and next year’s debate will be about some other feedstock where availability is under challenge due to weather, blight or high prices. It comes to food crops, it has come to residues – it probably will come to dedicated energy crops as well. Diversifying feedstock supply and usage is vital to maintaining steady prices and economically-viable rising production. Since biorefineries are not going to be mobile, systems that can move biomass (or intermediates such as renewable sugars) over longer distances will offer relief, should the associated contamination and cost challenges be addressed.
The bottom line on product optionality
Very interesting this LanzaTech commercialization strategy – adding a bulk chemical route to its ethanol-producing abilities. That will give it a robust channel to market, no matter how the debate over ethanol and its feedstocks and markets develops. Diversification has its benefits on the downstream side, too.