CCEI Partners with ExxonMobile for Renewable Chemicals Project

exxonThe Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), a U.S. Department of Energy-Energy Frontier Research Center led by the University of Delaware, is partnering with ExxonMobil on a two-year research project about creating renewable chemicals from biomass. According to the University of Delaware, “the research will focus on converting lignocellulosic (non-food) biomass such as trees and grasses to polymers that are identical to existing petrochemical products.” Past research has focused on converting biomass to polymers with the same function but different structure. Unfortunately, processing can be difficult and developing new products tends to be expensive. CCEI is attempting to yield direct-replacement chemicals. CCEIs researcher and University of Amherst Professor Paul Dauenhauer says that consumers won’t be able to tell the difference when the renewable chemicals are mixed with petroleum-based material, allowing for bio-derived direct replacement chemicals to be blended with existing petrochemical products at any ratio. Zintro expert David A. Hurwitz is Managing Director of Edica-Garnett Partners LLC, a global strategy and execution consultancy. In his consulting activities, he addresses specialty chemicals, polymers, advanced materials, fine chemical and many downstream industries. “Many of the points ring true,” says Hurwitz of the project’s announcement. “Biomass-based polymers often do not have equivalent properties to petroleum or NGL-based materials because the structures are not identical. This is both in thermoplastics (PLA and PHA polymers do not extrude the same) and thermosets. Polyol replacements based on soy raw materials tend to be less rigid than products made with EG, DEG, PG, etc. and cure response can be slower.” “In addition, the costs are far higher than petchem-based plastics,” continues Hurwitz. “The approach of inventing new bio-polymers has proven to be a challenge in the commercialization phase and so many firms are looking to invent bio-mass based routes to standard intermediates. Thus, the polymer is identical to the petchem-based product, made in the same process equipment, but has a renewable resource base and thus ‘green’ or ‘sustainable.’ The notion that the CCEI would partner with ExxonMobile is somewhat akin to letting the cat play with the mouse. ExxonMobile probably does have the R&D and financial muscle to deliver innovations (process routes and process engineering) that can impact the overall economics, but the firm has hardly been a bell-weather supporter of the green movement. Yes, they are increasingly efficient in material use, energy use, water use etc. and that is great. However, they have a vested interest in sustaining the status quo on digging holes in the ground and using the hydrocarbons that they find to produce chemicals and polymers.” Hurwitz explains, “Every time Dow, ExMo, and BP have taken public positions on renewable or alternative energy and bio-mass raw materials it seems to generate initial excitement and then wither on the vine of quarterly earnings reports. The goal of converting renewable cellulosic raw materials to chemicals is a desirable objective and needs to be pursued, but there must be either good economics AND good policies to drive sustained interest and commercial acceptance of these materials- all without false economics or manipulated ‘sustainability’ ratings.” Hurwitz has hope for the partnership but is realistic. “At some point we need to reward companies for actually using them rather than put them in the position of declining valuation due to lower earnings from higher cost raw materials. I wish the partnership well and hope for the best, but the investment community in the US is not friendly to ‘doing the right thing’ unless it can come with higher earnings, not lower ones!” Zintro has experts in every industry sector, across every job function, in every geographic region. Recently, some of the following topics have seen inquiry activity: