The transition from purely traditional chemistry toward a chemistry based on building blocks from renewable sources is a key force that is opening the door to new markets and creating products built on new economic, social and environmental strategies.
Although these strategies encountered strong headwinds during the recent years of crisis, the emergence of the bioeconomy, a new concept that represents an effective solution for generating both environmental quality and new growth is now clearly evident. Crucial to the realization of the bioeconomy is the development of integrated, local biorefineries designed to produce innovative biochemicals and bioplastics, which offer a much higher added value compared to existing sites producing energy and biofuels.
Such an integrated model offers a key tool to be wielded in establishing synergies with the agricultural world, breathing new life into older manufacturing sites and restarting production in certain critical or depressed areas, which in turn sparks positive cascading effects in terms of employment, productivity, environmental protection and integration with the traditional oil-based sector. Using renewable raw materials, such as agricultural waste or dedicated sustainable crops, a new chemistry can evolve that is not only synergistic with traditional chemistry, but which also respects the ecosystem and the local biodiversity while at the same time engaging the region in a process of innovation.
In Italy, major steps have already been taken in this direction thanks to very substantial investments in research and in the construction of new plants and demonstrators by a number of national industrial players. Matrìca, the 50:50 joint venture between Novamont and Versalis, is a prime example. As the archetype of the new industrial model, this project involves the conversion of a petrochemical site in Porto Torres (Sardinia) into an integrated biorefinery that, using feedstock derived from agricultural raw materials and vegetable scraps, will produce a range of chemical products (biochemicals, building blocks for bioplastics, bases for lubricants, bioadditives for rubbers and plasticizers for polymers) through innovative and low-impact processes.
Integration of industrial and agricultural production
The project taps into the growing demand for biochemicals. The world market for biochemicals is expected to grow by 17% a year, with production estimated at up to 8.1 million tons in 2015 (Source: Lux Research Study, September 2010). Bolstered by these projections, the 500 million euro Matrìca project, which started in 2012, will include the construction of various plants, the first of which is due to go on-stream in the near future. The project covers a total area of about 27 hectares.
Matrìca represents a model of integration between industrial and agricultural production. The raw materials of the biorefinery will consist of selected oleaginous local crops, which do not compete with food resources and are cultivated on marginal lands. One of the options currently being analyzed is thistle (Cynara cardunculus L. var. Altilis), a dry farming and low input crop, suitable for the Mediterranean climate. This crop, already naturally present in the region, grows on marginal, uncultivated, low fertility farmland and can be used without encroaching on any resources intended for human or animal food use. A versatile crop, both the oil deriving from the thistle seed and the biomass, from which cellulose and hemicellulose are obtained, are used. Moreover high protein flour is obtained from the extraction of the oil, which can be used to replace the soya currently used to feed dairy animals.
At Matrìca, monomers for bioplastics, additives for lubricants and plasticizers for PVC, based on Novamont's research and technology, will be produced, all derived from renewable sources. In particular, vegetable oil is transformed into dicarboxylic acids, monocarboxylic acids and glycerol.
Importantly, these innovative, bio-based plasticizers are phthalate free. Plasticizers have been and still are a key raw material for numerous polymers. While phthalates are the most commonly used plasticizers in the plastic industry, concerns about their health and safety are fueling a growing demand for alternatives. This new range of PVC plasticizers is based on complex polymeric esters, derived from sustainable and renewable resources.
The key feature is the combination of a relatively high molecular weight and a very low glass transition temperature leading to a good plasticizing efficiency in a broad range of conditions with extremely low plasticizer volatility.
Matrìca's initial product family will be based on the dicarboxylic acid, azelaic acid. This is an extremely interesting product from a chemical perspective, because it is one of the basic constituents of bioplastics. Moreover, it has a series of other possible applications, for example in the cosmetics sector or in the pharmaceutical sector for skin and hair treatment. This acid has a high degree of purity - a very important characteristic in the polymerization process and for use in pharmacosmetic products.
Together with dicarboxylic acids, Matrìca will also produce a series of monocarboxylic acids. The flagship product of this set of acids will be pelargonic acid, a natural product which has a series of potential applications in the field of phytosanitary products. However, thanks to its extreme purity - the result of a special extraction process - its main use will be as a base for the production of bio-lubricants,
Bio-lubricants derived from pelargonic acid will benefit the car industry, marine sector, agriculture and many other areas that demand performance combined with an advantageous environmental profile.
Another important product is a special mix of vegetable oil derivatives, designed to replace fossil-based additives currently used in tire manufacture. As an oil extender in the rubber compound from which tires are made, it enhances performance, for example, by lowering the rolling resistance (resulting in lower fuel consumption) and improving processability, thus yielding overall sustainability benefits both during production and use.
About the author: Stefano Facco began his professional experience in the sector of biopolymers more that 20 years ago. He joined Novamont in 1997, and today he is the New Business Development Director of Novamont as well as the Managing Director of the German subsidiary of Novamont.