Ethanol: For the rubber or the road? New Russian tech advances for one-step alcohol-to-butadiene

Ethanol: For the rubber or the road? New Russian tech advances for one-step alcohol-to-butadiene
11 April 2016
In Russia, ETB Catalytic Technologies has received $0.6 million from ZAVKOM and Skolkovo Fund as a series A investment to build a pilot plant for the production of 1,3-butadiene from ethanol, The investors received 22% of ETB CaT LLC.

Why butadiene?

Butadiene is a feedstock for production of synthetic rubber. 75% world production of butadiene is used for the production of tires, followed by plastic products with 12% share. The global demand for butadiene in 2014 reached 10.95M tons and $15.24B in revenue.

Why butadiene from ethanol?

Ethanol is cheap, at around $500 per ton; butadiene prices have ranged between $850 and $2100 per metric ton over the past 5 years. So, there’s an uplift opportunity not dissimilar to making n-butanol or isobutanol at an ethanol plant, and it’s a bigger lift than making jet fuel from ethanol.

Yes, oil prices have collapsed but North American production of butadiene is still shifting away over time from ethylene cracking to natural gas cracking — butadiene is a by-product of the former but not the latter. Which has brought ethanol back into the picture as a feedstock from a cost POV, as well as for purposes of greening the chemistry.

It’s all been done before?

Yes, butadiene has been made from ethanol for a long, long time. In World War Two, when petroleum was scarce, it was the hot method, and the process has continued on in Russia, India and China. There’s the one-step Lebedev process and the two-step Ostromislensky process, more or less.

Here’s a review of  opportunities raised in 2012 with a two-step process at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.  . And here’s  a review of a one-step process investigated in the last couple of years.

Matthew Jones, writing  in Chemistry Central Journal  concluded that the four challenges with a one-step process are:

  • Increasing the selectivity
  • Future studies are required to fully ascertain the respective rates of the Prins mechanism compared to the aldol/hydrogen transfer process.
  • Reactor engineering — the relative merits of a fixed bed or fluidized bed reacts still needs to be investigated further.
  • Complications with coking.

Problems solved?

According to ETBCat, they are on the right path.

“The high activity and selectivity to butadiene was achieved due to new multifunctional catalysts developed, which are the key element of the technology. A one-step process is favorable to increase the efficiency of the technology eliminating the expensive multi-stage separation systems,” said Prof. Irina Ivanova, Head of the laboratory of Kinetics and Catalysis, Lomonosov Moscow State University.

You can see some of Ivanona’s work in the patent literature here, in “ One-Step Method for Butadiene Production”.

ETBCat’s timeline to scale

The company expects to complete pilot testing of bio-butadiene process by 2018 and to license the commercial-grade process technology on a global market. ETB CaT has a number of patents issued in globally, including Russia and the United States and 15 patent applications on the national stage.

“Comparing to competitors, our company attracted relatively lower investments with respect to similar solutions at R&D stage. However, to date, only our technology has the background of successful industrial application. This makes us faster in the process of commercialization and we expect to achieve an industrial scale within 3 years. Of course, this will require the company to secure additional investment of at least $10 million,” says Vladimir Trembovolsky, CEO of ETB CaT.

Who else is chasing renewable butadiene?

Genomatica, Axens and Global Bioenergies are in the hunt.

The backstory on ETBCat

ETB Catalytic Technologies LLC was founded in 2013, the development of bio-butadiene technology goes back to 2009. This technology can significantly improve the efficiency of ethanol to butadiene conversion in comparison with the early operating industrial Lebedev process, as well as other developments in this area.

Who are ZAVKOM and Skolkovo?

ZAVKOM is a leading Russian EPC, supplying equipment for oil and gas, petrochemical, food and agricultural industries all over the world, based roughly halfway between Moscow and Volgograd, with activities in Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The Skolkovo Foundation is a government-founded non-profit aiming to accelerate Russia’s transformation from a resource-intensive to an innovation-based economy. Skolkovo Innvoation Center is currently home to 1,400 startups spread across several tech clusters including IT, biomed, space, nuclear and energy-efficient technologies. . Fifty global corporations including Boeing, Cisco Systems, EADS, GE, Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Siemens, Nokia, Samsung, and Panasonic have signed R&D partnership agreements with the Foundation. The cumulative revenue of Skolkovo’s startups through December 2014 reached $1 billion.