DuPont plans major shift to biobased feedstocks

By Doug Smock
Published: June 24th, 2013

DuPont, one of the world's largest chemical companies, says that more than half of its plastics portfolio will be made from renewable resources within 15 years.

The company is exploring new technologies to make chemical monomers for basic plastics like nylon from carbon-based resources that can be rapidly regenerated, said Lewis Manring, VP - Global

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Technology VP Lewis Manring

Technology, DuPont Performance Polymers & Automotive Technologies, in an interview at DuPont's Chestnut Run research and office complex in Wilmington, DE.

"Our first preference is to use non-food-crop resources," Manring said. He did not disclose the monomers or types of technologies under investigation. 

The strategy leverages the three strategic priorities for DuPont: extend its agriculture and nutrition footprint, build biobased industrial businesses and strengthen its advanced materials positions. DuPont beefed up its capabilities in the biosciences area two years ago with the $6.3 billion acquisition of Danisco, which has two lines of business that interested DuPont: food ingredients and industrial enzymes for biofuels.

At a recent investor conference, CEO Ellen Kullman said: "Our third strategic priority is to build on our leadership position in the industrial biotechnology area and create transformational bio-based businesses in areas like biofuels and biomaterials. We will achieve this goal by leveraging world-class capabilities and critical enabling technology. These include designing and operating cell factories and microbial pathway engineering. The application development capability and market access of our advanced materials businesses, along with the value chain relationships and feedstock knowledge of our ag and nutrition businesses offer advantages for our success here."

There is an increasing convergence in biology and chemistry at DuPont, and that's an area where DuPont wants to be the global leader.

The strategy also fits into DuPont's goal to provide alternatives to fossil fuels as one of the key pillars of its business, as outlined in the recent meeting in Chestnut Run.

DuPont was unique among the major chemical companies in making a major investment in a bio-based feedstock for its plastics businesses when it joined the DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products joint venture in 2004. The JV opened a plant, now described as one of the largest renewable materials facilities in the world, in Loudon, TN to produce Bio-PDO propanediol from corn sugar.

Corn is transformed into sugars using enzymes developed by DuPont Genencor science. The sugars are fermented into Bio-PDO using proprietary production microorganisms developed by DuPont. The propanediol monomer is polymerized into Sorona polyester using a proprietary process.

"By pairing chemical and material sciences with biology we've created a business that's delivering $300 million in new revenue," Kullman said. "Our unique science enables enhanced performance and lower systems cost while delivering a reduced environmental portfolio."

Sorona is a hit in the carpet, apparel and personal care markets, but not so much in engineering plastics where it doesn't offer enough of a clear performance advantage at a competitive price to warrant large-scale substitutions. There have been very few announced applications for Sorona EP. At K 2010, the major triennial plastics show held in Germany, DuPont showed only two or three applications for Sorona EP.

The route indicated by Manring in the meetings in Chestnut Run last week isignals a different going-forward strategy for use of renewable resources in engineering plastics. He said that DuPont will use its expertise in bio sciences to develop monomers that are identical to those now made with fossil fuels. It's the same strategy that Coca-Cola has used to develop an alternative plastic bottle material using ethylene produced from Brazilian sugar.

Although Coca-Cola has never disclosed costs for its renewable feedstock strategy, most experts believe that there is a cost premium, possibly significant,  involved.

Manring said that DuPont will only use the new feedstocks if there is no financial or performance penalty.

It's a major commitment and undertaking, particularly given that DuPont's largest competitiors seem to have largely adopted a wait-and-see approach to renewably sourced engineering plastics. In an interview at K 2010, BASF's chief sustainability officer told Plastics Today that it views vehicle lightweighting as the most important way to tackle climate change, not use of bioplastics.

Another major competitor, Sabic Innovative Plastics has a portfolio based on amorphous chemistry that does not lend itself to use of renewable resources. At least two other major producers of engineering plastics are also exploring increasing use of biobased plastics. DSM is investing in emerging technologies to make new types of bioplastics. Lanxess has made a major investment in Düsseldorf-based enzyme specialist evocatal.

Many producers have introduced or expanded their offerings of specialty nylons made from castor oil, but those are primarily niche products.  DuPont's strategy covers large scale plastics such as nylon and elastomers. 

Manring did not provide any specifics, but one monomer candidate could be adipic acid, one of the building blocks of nylon, which was invented in 1935 at the DuPont Experimental Station, where Manring is now based.  Some 2,000 scientists and researchers work there.

Several entrepreneurial companies such as Rennovia, Verdezyne, BioAmber, Celexion, and Genomatica are exploring bio-based routes to produce adipic acid with the goal of creating 100% bio-based nylon.

Two of the companies use a glucose feedstock valued in the neighborhood of $300 per metric ton. The conventional DuPont process to produce nylon 6,6  uses a feedstock priced four times higher, according to an analysis by IHS Chemical.

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