The Versatile Ethanol Molecule

FROM THE FEBRUARY ISSUE: Ethylene, with a similar molecular structure to that of ethanol, has enormous market opportunity around the world.
By Susanne Retka Schill | January 23, 2020

Knock a water molecule off ethanol and you’ll get ethylene, C2H4—the most widely produced organic chemical globally that is the basis for scores of other chemicals and hundreds (maybe thousands) of products, from antifreeze and surfactants to synthetic fibers, plastics and packaging. Global ethylene production in 2016 was greater than 150 million metric tons, with more than half going to produce polyethylene.

The biggest problem for ethanol producers is that virtually all of that ethylene currently is produced from either crude oil-based naptha or natural gas-based ethane, with shale gas promising to be the lowest-cost feedstock for years to come in the U.S.

But fossil sources are losing favor among those looking to reduce carbon footprints. And that represents a big opportunity for ethanol producers.

At 2 percent, the market share for biobased polymers is still quite small, with 7.5 million metric tons produced in 2018, according to the German Nova-Institute. But while liquid transportation fuel demand is forecast to decline in the decades ahead, a United Nations Global Chemicals Outlook projects the size of the global chemical industry—conventional and biobased—to double by 2030.

“We’re looking to capture a small percentage of the growth that’s going to happen in these chemicals,” says Frank Liotta, executive vice president and chief operating officer of New Jersey-headquartered technology provider Petron Scientech Inc. New capacity is being added every year to keep up with demand, he adds, especially for polyethylene and glycols.

Petron’s technology has been converting ethanol to renewable chemicals for nearly 30 years. “Originally, we got into it because there were companies that needed ethylene and it was either too expensive to ship in or the company did not want to invest billions of dollars to put a cracker in to produce ethylene.” The investment cost per unit to produce ethylene from ethanol is only 15 to 20 percent of the cost to produce it in a steam cracker, he explains. Ethanol-to-ethylene is a catalytic process followed by distillation for purification, with yields better than 99 percent.

Petron is working with partners through its sister company, BioChem, to develop fully integrated biorefineries in India and Portugal. Integrating the ethanol production process with ethylene reduces processing costs and eliminates logistic costs for transporting ethanol, Liotta says. Completion of the first plants is expected in 2022 and 2023.

While the U.S. has just one ethanol-to-ethylene and ethylene oxide (EO) plant (Croda in Delaware), Petron has more than one U.S. customer considering its modular technology. “In those cases, they would be buying the ethanol and producing ethylene oxide on the site where they make surfactants or other EO derivatives,” Liotta says. On-site production of ethanol-based EO is competitive, he says, if you factor in the increasing cost of shipping the hazardous chemical.

Biopolypropylene has been in Brazilian petrochemical manufacturer Braskem’s portfolio for a decade. Braskem’s plant converts close to 500 million liters (130 million gallons) of sugarcane ethanol first to ethylene and then into 200,000 tons of polyethylene annually, at full capacity. “We have hundreds of clients globally, primarily using it for bottles and packaging, but also for automotive parts and other products,” says Marco Jansen, circular economy and sustainability leader for Europe and Asia. Expecting to see continued double-digit growth that’s closer to 20 than 10 percent each year, Jansen says Braskem is currently evaluating expanding capacity.

“In general, although it doesn’t have the image, plastics are one of the more sustainable products, because of low energy consumption compared to glass or paper,” he says. “The problem is it is so durable. Its negative image is more due to waste than the product itself.” Rather than working toward biodegradable plastics, which would return the carbon to the atmosphere, he suggests recycling is the better approach to concerns about the environmental impact of plastic waste.

Sugarcane as the ethanol feedstock adds to the plastic’s sustainability profile, because of its carbon footprint as a perennial crop and the standard industry practice of generating electricity from waste streams. Braskem also has developed its own sustainable ethanol sourcing program that looks at biodiversity, the use of fertilizer, production practices and social and environmental programs, verified with external audits. “It’s very broad,” Jansen says. “We look to be sure all the regulations are obeyed and for improvement projects that indicate the suppliers are trying to become more sustainable from both social and environmental aspects.”

Taking Flight
Jet fuel from ethanol is another promising market with potential to grow. “The aviation sector is crying for sustainable aviation fuels,” says Freya Burton, chief sustainability officer for LanzaTech. The company is in the engineering stage of scaling up the catalytic conversion of ethanol to synthetic paraffin kerosene—alcohol to jet fuel, or ATJ. Developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, LanzaTech has taken the PNNL process from bench to pilot scale, and is now planning a 10 MMgy demonstration commercial-scale plant at its Freedom Pines research facility in Soperton, Georgia. “That’s where we scale up other chemicals that we make besides ethanol,” Burton says. “We expect mechanical completion of the ATJ in 2021, and are looking at about 10 MMgy for the first site, scaling up to 30 MMgy facilities, almost in parallel.” LanzaTech will be sourcing sustainably produced ethanol, not producing it on-site in Georgia.

Getting its start as a cellulosic ethanol developer, LanzaTech bought the Georgia facility from failed cellulosic developer Range Fuels. Since 2012, LanzaTech has used the facility as a research center to develop its hybrid process that uses industrial or biomass-based gases to grow bacteria, which, in turn, produce ethanol or other chemicals.

The ATJ has been used in two test flights, one to Europe and the other to Japan, and has met ASTM standards for synthetic jet fuel, with blending allowed up to 50 percent. The potential market is substantial. Total global fuel consumption by commercial airlines totaled 95 billion gallons in 2018.

In addition to ATJ, LanzaTech is working with its Chinese partners to develop new markets beyond fuel blending. “We’ve taken some of the ethanol and are converting it into PET for consumer goods, synthetic fiber for apparel or packing materials,” Burton says. The commercial-scale plant recycling steel production emissions came online last year in May and has produced more than 10 million gallons since, Burton says. “The scale up is going well.” Other projects are in various stages of engineering, with those in Belgium, India and South Africa recycling waste gases, and the Aemetis project in California using LanzaTech technology to convert gasified agricultural residues to cellulosic ethanol.

The U.S. Grains Council is looking to capitalize on the growing interest in industrial ethanol, ATJ and bioplastics as a potential outlet for U.S. ethanol exports. Speakers from India and Nigeria addressed the topic at the Global Ethanol Summit last October and the council is working on research that will be released later this year.

At the Global Ethanol Summit, Rakesh Bhartia, CEO of India Glycols Ltd., described his company as a pioneer in using ethanol to produce bioglycols, bioethylene oxide and derivatives. With the second-largest population in the world and a growing economy, India has no petroleum reserves of its own.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service’s 2019 Global Agricultural Information Network report on India biofuels projects the country’s 2019 ethanol consumption will reach a record 3.8 billion liters, of which 2.6 billion liters will be produced domestically. As the country does not allow ethanol imports to be used for fuel, its domestic supplies are used for gasoline blending, which is expected to reach a 5.8 percent blend rate in 2019—a record, but far from the country’s E10 goal. Imported ethanol is used to fill the demand for industrial ethanol, which in 2018 totaled 633 million liters.

The second speaker at the summit described the situation in his West African nation of Nigeria where industrial ethanol is primarily used in pharmaceuticals and consumer products. Olaoluwa Bamikole, consultant and founder of Zenith Agroethanol Nigeria, explained that although the country allows E10, very little is used as there are no blending facilities. Furthermore, about 60 percent of the nation’s 200 million people live in economically poor rural areas with few cars.

“The USGC’s objective is to export ethanol, but unfortunately, the present government does not want that,” Bamikole says. “They want to develop local production. I wish an American company would show interest in developing ethanol plants here. We have cassava and can use sorghum, molasses and corn.”

A USGC report following a November trade mission to Nigeria and nearby Ghana noted Nigeria was the 14th largest market for U.S. ethanol, importing 18 million gallons in the 2018-’19 marketing year to supplement its domestic cassava-based ethanol production.

Bamikole points to another potential market for ethanol in African nations reliant upon firewood and kerosene for cooking stoves—an issue of indoor air quality and, in the case of firewood, the safety of the young girls who traditionally collect it. Bamikole estimates that if all families in Nigeria alone, with its population of 200 million, used 1 to 2 liters of ethanol per day for cooking, it could amount to 42.8 billion liters annually.   

Cooking fuel, industrial ethanol, jet fuel, bioplastics—opportunities exist for alternative and lucrative markets. “Should you have downturns in the fuel market, you would have chemical markets to give some diversification of their product mix,” Liotta says. 

“We see ethanol as this amazing substrate,” Burton says. “It is easily transportable. We can make it from a variety of feedstocks, and turn it into fuel and products that would otherwise come from fossil resources.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance Journalist
[email protected]