While Mr. Granda claims more than 100 chemicals can be made using the technology, the current focus is on the production of acetone (a ketone) for isopropanol. This is intended for dehydration to propylene and then converted to bio-gasoline.
Levulinic acid as a platform chemical
Segetis, a Minnesota (USA) based technology-driven company, is developing platform technologies based on levulinic acid (LA) that the company believes can address a US$80-bn market now.
LA is widely seen as a platform chemical that can be sustainably produced from biomass via thermochemical processes. Although it is not yet commercially available in large quantities, sporadic production has emerged from China.
The core of the Segetis' technology development efforts is on the conversion of LA to ketals and subsequently to a host of other chemicals, using proprietary technologies. But the focus is currently on two key markets to validate the technology and these include a non-phthalate plasticiser for PVC and a cleaning agent that has already found its way into commercial products now marketed by Target, a retail chain.
"We have a 120-tpa plant making ketals in a consistent manner since 2009," says Mr. Atul Thakrar, President & CEO, Segetis. The next step in the evolution is a toll manufacturing facility, with a capacity of 3-mn lbs/year, which is expected to go on-stream in January 2012. "By 2014, we are planning on a 50-100 mn lbs/year facility, but this requires assured LA supplies," he says.
This is where Malaysia comes in. The empty fruit bunches of the palm tree – the part left behind after the palm fruit has been taken out for oil extraction – can be used to make LA, as can wood or even organic municipal waste. "This can be a bolt-on facility to a palm oil plant and will also produce formic acid and furfural as co-products," adds Mr. Thakrar.
In China, some enterprising companies are producing LA on a small scale using corn cobs. "The technology is inefficient and production is sporadic," he adds.
Ten year horizon
Over the next five years, it is very likely large plants for lactic acid and succinic acid will be built. But it will probably take another five to ten years for some – not all – of the other technologies to come into play.