Developing bio routes to MMA

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To enter biotechnological processes or not? What factors need to be considered? How does a chemical company select the best manufacturing route once it has entered the biotechnology arena?

These are some of the questions Dr David Johnson, Research Associate and Technical Leader of Biotechnology Process Development at Lucite International (LI), has considered this week as part of his talk at The Industrial Biotechnology Showcase, in London.

In 2007 LI recognised the need to provide methacrylates derived from renewable resources in the next decade, thus embarking on an adventure of transitioning to bio-based feedstocks as the raw materials for MMA production. This coincided with the agreement of nations to limit global warming to 2ºC, which would mean adhering to a tighter carbon budget.

Here David Johnson shares his views with us on the development of bio-based products:

“LI, part of Mitsubishi Rayon Group, is the global leader in methacrylate production with over double the capacity of the second largest producer. We believe that it is critical for us to have access to a process that provides MMA from renewable feedstocks.   Some chemicals, such as ethanol, lactic acid, surfactants and Monoethylene Glycol (MEG) are already being offered as biotechnological-based solutions.  There are many others for which processes are being developed, but it is not clear whether they will be successful in a price sensitive marketplace”.

How we see this environmental aspect in every day requests as a business

“The attitude of our customers is increasingly conscious of their environmental footprint. The coatings industry, for example, is focussed on reducing their carbon emissions and obtaining feedstocks for paint based on renewable resources”.

As a chemical company that has entered the biotechnology field, what has LI discovered?

“Anything is possible, but achieving a tangible process is very difficult. A great deal of learning is required as the science behind biotechnology is very different from purely chemical routes”.

What do ‘renewable resources’ comprise of for LI and what does our research mainly focus on?

“LI’s activity is exclusively on monomers since these are the building blocks for methacrylate polymers (pMMA). pMMA is largely a very high performance polymer with a wide range of applications and we have concluded that it would be difficult to develop biopolymers (ie. where the polymer is formed in a living organism) with adequate properties for a significant number of applications. In other words it would not be viable to produce biopolymers directly without first creating the biomonomers as their basis. On a positive note, a methacrylate from a renewable feedstock is identical to a fossil based methacrylate, so no new polymer formulations would be required to apply it when we develop the biomonomers”.

Is a place for bio-route based manufacture of MMA alongside or in place of fossil fuel based raw materials?

“I believe we have demonstrated thus far that the best routes could be at parity or better than conventionally priced oil-based routes. There is certainly scope for more development work to be done on the bio-routes to MMA. However, there are still many technical challenges to overcome and a need to firmly establish a clear picture of the financials involved so that we can compare viabilities of the various route options. Our work is on-going on both technical and financial aspects. Meanwhile, the UK Government like many countries is very keen to see UK-based research developing competitive products and has also attempted to set up centres of excellence within universities to help newcomers and experienced companies alike. This is very encouraging and I certainly hope that we can continue to collaborate and learn from one another so that we can achieve real progress together”.

To find out more about LI’s Sustainability targets and other ways in which we are investing in the manufacture and supply of our product range, please click here.  For more information on biotechnology and our patented Alpha technology, click here.

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