🏭 The Column: June 7, 2024

Trillium's bio-based acrylonitrile, Covestro's investment in BioBTX, and Oxy's DLE deal.

Good morning. It hasn’t been the busiest week in the world of chemicals but some stuff did happen. Oh, and if you’re a Covestro employee reading the second story, I promise I still think Covestro is a cool company with great people doing interesting things.

Things Happened:

Trillium’s bio-based acrylonitrile

Thanks to a process developed by Standard Oil of Ohio (SOHIO) and commercialized in the early 1960s, over 90% of the world’s acrylonitrile (ACN) is produced via the catalytic ammoxidation of propylene. That process is now owned by Ineos, who also happens to be the world’s largest producer of ACN. So, as you might imagine, it’s in Ineos’s best interest to keep an eye out for alternative ACN processes, which is exactly what Trillium brings to the table: they’re trying to commercialize a process for converting glycerol (a biodiesel by-product) into ACN. But scaling a technology and marketing its outputs are very difficult for a chemical startup to do in tandem, especially when their output is effectively a commodity. That’s true in part because greater scale is needed, but largely because there isn’t pricing power in commodities, so your process will need to be cheaper than the incumbent’s to make it worth keeping in-house. Regardless, Trillium needs to build a demonstration scale site before anything else can happen, and Ineos is happy to have them do so at their ACN plant in Port Lavaca, Texas. They expect it to start up sometime next year. [LINK]

Covestro’s investment in BioBTX

Here’s the thing—our material world is built upon two categories of reactive molecules: short chain olefins and aromatics. These are petroleum-based molecules that we can make by other means, but those means are, so far, always bottlenecked by some scaling limitation, the energetic cost of conversion, or the cost of the feedstock. So forgive me for not being optimistic about alternative routes to BTX (that’s benzene, toluene, and xylene), and forgive the incumbents, like Covestro, for investing in these processes: they have a vested interest because they consume BTX to make stuff like polyurethanes, an amount of capital that their venture arm needs to distribute, and customers who are willing to pay for ISCC certified renewable products. It’s business, not innovation, and nobody is going to harmed by moving the needle, so I’m all for it. [LINK]

Oxy might make DLE happen

Back in 2007, a few engineers founded a company called Simbol Materials, with the hopes of commercializing a process to extract lithium from the brine by-product of geothermal power plants (as opposed to the widely used open air evaporation process for lithium production). And for a while it looked like they might pull it off: the company had commercial partners lined up, and their demo plant in Salton Sea, California was successfully producing lithium in 2013. But they struggled to get funding for a commercial scale plant, let a $325 million acquisition offer from Elon Musk fall through, and laid off most of everyone just a year later. The company went bust, lawsuits followed, and eventually a group called All American Lithium got their hands on Simbol’s intellectual property. That group eventually formed a joint venture with Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) called TerraLithium, and now, after nearly 2 decades, it looks like the stars have aligned: Oxy just formed a joint venture with a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary that owns and operates 12 geothermal power plants, and demand for US-produced lithium is at an all time high. [LINK]

Other Things Happened:

Air Liquide is going to supply semiconductor manufacturers in Idaho with ultra-pure gases. Agilyx is now making on-spec product at its polystyrene depolymerization site in Japan. Lummus bought some of a PHA startup’s convertible bonds, and they announced their new dimethyl ether production process. Methanex had to idle its natural gas to methanol plant in Egypt because of a natural gas shortage. Nextchem’s urea process is being licensed for a new plant in China. BASF sold part of its enzyme business. RioTinto invested $143m in a low-carbon ironmaking technology. The EPA is considering increased regulation on NMP (also, here’s a reminder that new regulations do pass from time to time).


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