Firms plan pilot plants for biobased acrylic acid

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Acrylic acid, normally derived from propylene, is used to make paints, coatings, and superabsorbent polymers for diapers.

Over the past decade, a number of companies have tried and failed to commercialize biobased production of acrylic acid, a monomer used to make paints, coatings, and superabsorbent polymers for diapers. Despite those false starts, two projects are moving ahead for biobased acrylic acid or its precursors.

LG Chem and GS Caltex hope to start up a demonstration plant in Yeosu, South Korea, early next year that will produce biobased 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP), which can be dehydrated into acrylic acid. The plant will use LG Chem’s fermentation process and separation technology from GS Caltex. In addition to acrylic acid, 3-HP could be used to make biodegradable plastics, the companies say.

In 2019, LG Chem announced a partnership with ADM to make acrylic acid from corn and said it would consider a North American facility. LG Chem says the partnership with GS Caltex is separate and will use a different technology.

Meanwhile, Låkril Technologies, a start-up that spun out of Paul Dauenhauer’s lab at the University of Minnesota in 2021, plans to open a pilot plant by the end of next year. The company catalytically converts biobased lactates, such as methyl lactate, ethyl lactate, and lactic acid, into acrylic acid.

“When we started it was a catalyst,” Låkril President Christopher Nicholas says. “Now, it’s a whole process.”

The plant is expected to produce about 1 kg per day, enough for customers to test the material, according to Nicholas. Over the summer, the start-up received funding from the US National Science Foundation and Department of Energy to improve the performance and longevity of its catalyst.

Cargill has attempted to make biobiased acrylic acid from both 3-HP and lactic acid. The big agriculture company partnered with BASF and Novozymes for the 3-HP route, but BASF dropped out of the partnership in 2015 because it was concerned the process wouldn’t be cheap enough. Shortly after, Cargill acquired the start-up OPX Biotechnologies, which was also trying to make acrylic acid from 3-HP.

In 2020, Cargill licensed technology from Procter & Gamble that converts lactic acid into acrylic acid. At the end of that year, Cargill announced it was working with Axens and IFPEN to scale up the technology. The company says it’s not ready to share an update on its progress.

A glycerin-based route to biobased acrylic acid also faltered. In 2010, Arkema built a pilot plant based on the technology, but it eventually shelved the project because of the high price of glycerin. Last year, Arkema announced plans to sell “bio-attributed” acrylic acid, made by mixing biobased and fossil fuel feedstocks in a conventional production process.

Companies still have more work to do before they can compete with petrochemical acrylic acid production, says Sarang Bhagwat, a PhD candidate researching biorefineries at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He says firms using 3-HP need to improve fermentation yields. Also important for all routes will be reducing the amount of catalyst needed.

Still, Bhagwat is hopeful that these efforts will help transition acrylic acid production away from fossil fuel feedstocks, pointing to chemicals like lactic acid and furfural that have successfully made the switch. “There are a few success stories,” he says.


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