When it was identified by the Department of Energy as being one of the top 12 value-added chemicals from biomass back in 2004, levulinic acid was seen as a starting material for a wide variety of chemical compounds. Because it could be formed by treating 6-carbon sugar carbohydrates derived from starch or lignocellulosics with acid, or from five carbon sugars derived from hemicelluloses by adding a reduction step after the acid treatment, levulinic acid could serve as a valuable building block available from almost all sugars manufactured in the biorefinery. As a platform chemical, therefore, it has been a subject of very considerable research and development over the past decade or so.
Recognizing the potential of levulinic acid to replace petroleum-based products across a range of sectors, a group of bio-based chemical experts founded GFBiochemicals (Milan, Italy) in 2008 to develop the production technology needed. And with success: at the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology currently taking place in Montreal, the company announced that production has now commenced at its 10,000 annual metric ton capacity levulinic acid plant in Caserta, Italy, making GFBiochemicals the first company to produce levulinic acid at commercial scale directly from biomass.
“Caserta is now the world's largest operational production plant for levulinic acid,” said Chief Commercial Officer Marcel van Berkel. “A fundamentally lower price range is now possible using our unique technology. This will give access to previously undiscovered market segments.”
The reactor technology developed by GFBiochemicals allows feedstock flexibility—a wide range of biomass can be used, including cellulosic waste. The continuous process produces formic acid and char, which are recovered. This leads to a combination of high product yields, high productivity, concentrated process streams and efficient recovery.
Levulinic acid is made, says the company, directly from biomass for existing processes at prices competitive with petroleum-based products. It can be used, among other things, as raw material for the manufacturing of plasticizers, solvents and polyols for polyurethane foams, but it is also a potential replacement to phthalate plasticizer added to manufacture PVC.