It’s been getting more difficult to find new, interesting developments in industrial chemistry and energy, which explains why my posts are not as frequent as they used to be. The U.S. petrochemical industry got a robust new lease on life as a result of the fracking boom, but this has been written about extensively, though it will be interesting to see whether good practices, regulation and enforcement can bring the undesirable release of methane (a bad GHG) during fracking operations under good control.
The now much lower production cost of ethylene derivatives has in some cases hurt the economic viability of bio-based substitutes, notably polyethylene from sugar cane and ethylene glycol. On the other hand, with much less naphtha cracking here, butane derivatives become more valuable, making bio-based C4 derivatives that much more attractive. And while economics always play a major part in decisions regarding use of conventional (i.e.hydrocarbon) versus bio-based intermediates, consumers will, in some cases, pay more when companies can say that a product is wholly or partly made with natural materials (viz. Coca Cola’s polyester bottles made with bio-based ethylene glycol.
Bio-based polymers are, in fact, making slow but steady progress as an article in the October 27th issue of Chemical Engineering News points out. In most cases, the product is probably somewhat more expensive to make than the one it replaces, but incremental cost of the total article is small and the manufacturer is able to attract customers with a “reduced carbon footprint”. Thus, Invista, a DuPont fiber spinoff says its Lycra brand spandex, is 70% made from BASF’s fermentation-based butane diol, BASF is also far along to produce glacial acrylic acid from a sugar derivative with a pilot plant under construction. Disposable diapers are one of the main users of this material. And Coca Cola in partnership with Virent, expects to have 100% bio-based plastic bottle in the not too distant future using terephthalic acid made from bio-based p-xylene.
The DOE has identified several chemicals as best suited to replace hydrocarbon-based chemicals. These include succinic acid (maleic anhydride, pyrollidone), 1-4 butane-diol (still partly made from acetylene), glycerol (epichlorhydrin, lactic acid) and sorbitol. All of these chemicals are now produced in small or medium-sized commercial plants. Considerable progress is also reported for production of synthetic rubber intermediates from non-hydrocarbon sources. My July 25th, 2014 post lists bio-based polylactic acid (PLA) polymer as one of the substrates used in 3D printing.
My Oct 7, 2012 post first reported on bio-based polymers and that was two years ago. Let’s wait another two years to see what progress will be made by the next big election: campaign buttons made from natural materials? (Not likely to be a priority for Republicans).