Industrial uses for grain

by Chris Lyddon
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An expanding world economy needs more materials and it wants more functionality from those materials. Increasingly, technology based on grains will provide the basis for industrial production. The world’s big agricultural and chemical companies are fighting to be at the front of the latest developments.

John Williams, Head of Materials at the United Kingdom’s National Non-Food Crops Centre, explained that the use of platform chemicals and polymers derived from crops around the world is growing rapidly and doing so without any incentives from governments.

“It is a market-driven situation as opposed to a legislated thing like it is in energy and fuel to a certain extent,” he said. “It is dominated by two major feedstocks: starch and sugar. Any starch, including starch coming out of cereal operations, is a key component of manufacturing those building blocks, intermediates and polymers.

“While they are researching and there is some clever stuff going on in the background, looking at residues and straw cellulose and all sorts of other things in terms of derivatives, the main thrust in terms of plants that are being built and what technology is being used is on the basis that the feedstock is going to be starch and sugar for quite a long time.”

Crops for materials are an additional potential income stream for farmers. “These things stand up as a value chain proposition on their own,” he said. “They don’t need any help.”

He put the increase in value for crops for fuel at about five times, with at least a 45-times increase in value for materials.

“That is why a lot of companies which had originally started doing a lot of work in conversion for biofuels are now developing swanky fermentation packages and enzymes and all sorts of other IP that is directed specifically at certain platform chemicals, building blocks which are being then taken on by the major chemical producers, ultimately to end up as either intermediates or as a mainstream polymers,” he said.

There is huge potential. “The view going forward is that you could end up with a situation where, by 2030 or 2040, 20% of the current plastic chain, for example, is bio-based. That is a huge amount if you consider that the current volume of plastics on the market is around 450 million tonnes. A very high proportion of that bio-based fraction will derive its original feedstock from starch.”

Scope for extra production

Although the “food versus fuel” argument has received much public attention around the world, Williams doesn’t believe that getting farmers to come up with the raw material is going to be a problem.

“We are pretty good at increasing our production yields,” he said, noting that there are areas of the world now which are underproducing. “The other thing that people forget is that over 40% of the starch market goes into industrial applications already,” he said. “If you look at paper production — paper and board production, cosmetics, sugar replacements and so forth — you could call those food-related, but they are not a food as such. The belief that 100% of all starch that is produced automatically goes into food and that we are diverting that 100% is nonsense, to be honest.”

If there is demand, farmers will grow the crops. “We have yields in places that at the moment are pretty poor in comparison to the west and the United States,” he said. “The argument with materials is nonsensical.

“This is not about land availability. This is about land efficiency. It doesn’t stand up to me at all and every analysis that I’ve seen doesn’t stack up either.”

It’s something the whole industry is taking up. “You’ve actually got all the big agricultural guys who have their bio-based conversion platforms, so Cargill, ADM, Roquette and a number of others are all directly involved or partly involved in providing converted feedstocks, the building blocks for chemicals and in some cases the polymer itself.

“Cargill has its NatureWorks joint venture, originally using solely U.S. corn, but it is now going to build a plant in Southeast Asia using sugar and tapioca, to produce PLA,” he said. “ADM is in a biopolymer platform as well as its chemical platforms, all bio and all grains and oilseeds related. Roquette is the same. Roquette is in a joint venture with BASF on providing fermented starch materials into a succinic acid platform for BASF’s chemistry. They are all in this at a major level.”

All the major chemical companies have a plan for the sector. “DuPont, Dow, Mitsubishi, BASF, etc., all these guys are all in the frame,” he said. “Whereas years ago they would have a JV with BP or Shell, now they have a JV with ADM or Cargill. It is that sort of flow-through on products.”

The companies that are ultimately, broadly in control of the grain and sugar and oilseeds market in the world are the ones who are providing a base feedstock through to these companies under commercial agreements, he said.

“That is increasing. You then feed in the fact that a lot of the smaller companies that have often spun out of academia which have developed quite specific enzyme packages, for example, to convert sugar or fermented starch into downstream building blocks that was originally wholly or solely targeted at fuel have now diverted almost all their attention away from fuel into building chemical building blocks.

“So you see NatureWorks, whose parent company is ultimately Cargill, signing an agreement with BioAmber for a specific route to the production of succinic acid from corn dextrose. You have got Purac signing an agreement with BASF in combination with Myriant to do a specific version of succinic acid in their case, and in Purac’s case a specific version of lactic acid.”

The work going on includes doing things that couldn’t be made from a petroleum base. “There are two thinking blocks here. One is to say that I want the same as we currently get from our petro feedstocks, so I want drop-ins, so I want polyethylenes, polypropylene, all the usual plastic suspects that we use all the time and there are routes to that,” he said. “Ethanol is a typical one, so you can either go from a fermentation route from starch through sugar into ethanol and make it into ethylene or you can just simply take sugar, in the case of what the Brazilians are doing, and cut out the front bit. It is fairly simple chemistry. It is well known. The economics are well understood.”

There are also manufacturers looking for greater functionality and performance. “The petro chain is pretty much spent out in terms of R&D in terms of development of plastic. For instance, I could throw £10 million a week at polyethylene development and I am not going to get much more out of it because we have characterized it over the last 70 years,” he said. “What happens if I use a different building block altogether and produce a different plastic? Can I get more functionality out of that? Possibly. Hence, there is a driver also not only to provide drop-ins from bio-based for petro, but the novel materials like polylactic acid, the succinic acid group of polymers, the polyurethane materials that you can start to derive from plant-based products and feedstocks.”

Another example are furanics, which behave a little like PET, but with improved barrier properties.

“As brand owner, everything is about you providing a slightly better product than your competitor,” he said. “It suddenly becomes an equal driver to not only say I want a green version of polyethylene because, partly because it looks better, partly because it gives me a security of supply option going forward that I can take petro PE and bio PE and it behaves the same, but I also want something better. I want something different, something that gives me a better barrier property, something that gives me a better anti-slip, something that gives me better fuel flow in my feed systems. All of these things are actually going on. You have major automotive manufacturers, major material producers, major packaging, and nearly every packaging producer is looking at these bio-based platforms. All the main players are looking at this, partly for a security of supply issue going forward on the material but ultimately because they want something a bit better, either it has a better end of life disposal route or it simply performs better.”

He said the ultimate example of that is Coca-Cola, where it is also looking at its bio-based conversion of its current petro plastic, and the same time is looking at an alternative platform which is furanics, which derives a polymer called PEF that has increased barrier property over PET, which is Coca-Cola’s current choice of material.

“If it puts a bottle of Coca-Cola on your shelf and when you open it, it last three times longer than Pepsi, that is worth a lot of money to them,” he said.

“You have got all these nuances and arguments which are drivers in this material chain. Which is why, as a general course of action, it actually stands up as a market proposition anyway. Nobody needs to incentivize it.”

Global industrial use of grains expected to rebound

Global use of grains for making industrial products, mainly ethanol and starch, will register the largest annual increase in four years during 2013-14, according to the International Grains Council (IGC). Record global corn production and declines in grain prices primarily account for the expected rise in use after several years of little or no change.

The IGC forecast world industrial use of grains in 2013-14 at 320.2 million tonnes, up 17.2 million tonnes, or 6%, from the prior year’s estimated use of 303 million. Industrial use of grains in 2012-13 actually was down 2.5 million tonnes from the preceding season, while use in 2011-12 rose only 8.5 million over the prior year.

The IGC forecast that ethanol will account for 164.5 million tonnes of the 2013-14 use, compared with 155.9 million in 2012-13 and 163 million in 2011-12. Biofuels will account for 149.1 million tonnes of the use in making ethanol in the current crop year, compared with 140.9 million in the previous year and 147.9 million in 2011-12.

Global grain use in making starches, mainly for making starch-based sugar, was forecast by the Council at 118.7 million tonnes, against 110.9 million in 2012-13 and 106.3 million in 2011-12.

Brewing is expected to account for use of 36 million tonnes of grain in 2013-14, compared with 35.3 million in each of the two prior crop years.

The IGC also analyzed national use of grains for making biofuels, with the U.S. accounting for 127.1 million tonnes, or 85% of global use of 149.1 million projected for 2013-14. Other national users of grains for making biofuels included: the E.U., 10.3 million tonnes; Canada, 3.3 million; China, 5.4 million; and Argentina, 1 million.

On a grain basis, corn dominated in making biofuels, accounting for 138.8 million tonnes, of which 127.1 million were in the U.S. Other grains used globally for making biofuels were 6.1 million tonnes of wheat, 3.2 million tonnes of sorghum, 300,000 tonnes of barley and 700,000 unspecified.

“Much of the increase for ethanol will be in the U.S, while demand for starch-based sugars in China will continue to expand,” the IGC said. China demand was encouraged by favorable costs compared to cane and beet sugar, resulting in use of 50 million tonnes of grains to make starch.

Rising starch and fuel demand accounted for expanded E.U. use, bringing the industrial use total to 34.4 million tonnes in 2013-14, up 4% from the preceding year.

For the U.S., the Council cited the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast that 124.5 million tonnes of corn will be used to make ethanol in 2013-14. That would be up from 118.1 million in 2012-13 but still below the peak 127.5 million tonnes used to make biofuels in 2010-11.

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at: