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Succinic success

Succinic acid is a valuable commodity. Used in the food and beverage industry as an acidity regulator, and as a component in alkyd resins, petrochemical-based succinic acid is produced at both a high financial and a high environmental cost.


October 1, 2014
By Andrew Macklin


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Succinic acid is a valuable commodity. Used in the food and beverage industry as an acidity regulator, and as a component in alkyd resins, petrochemical-based succinic acid is produced at both a high financial and a high environmental cost.

BioAmber  
At capacity, the plant will produce 30,000MT of bio-succinic acid per year, making it the largest plant of its kind in the world.


 

Enter BioAmber, one of a handful of global companies now manufacturing a bio-based version of the chemical. BioAmber has been working on the development of bio-succinic acid for the past 15 years. It began working on the technology in the late-90s with support from the U.S. Department of Energy. Nearly six years later, the succinic acid portion of the original company was spun out of the operation, which was followed by a capital fundraising campaign to scale up the acids business.

“After we spun it out, our bio-succinic acid facility in France came online, which was a large-scale demonstration plant,” explains Mike Hartmann, Executive Vice-President of BioAmber.

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The plant in France has now been running for over four years, at a similar scale to that of current commercial production plants, producing 3,000 MT per year. Despite being a demonstration-scale plant, the company has been able to sell commercially to companies like Dow Chemical, helping BioAmber generate revenue and sign up customers to both supply agreements and take or pay agreements.

Building in North America
The industry credibility that has resulted from the success of the French plant has given the company the needed confidence to push forward with a second industry venture: establishing a commercial-scale facility in North America.

During the original planning stages, company officials established a preliminary list of 100 cities to consider for the new plant.

“We looked throughout North America at different provinces, different states,” said Hartmann. “We then narrowed it down to 10-12 sites and then conducted due diligence for each of those locations. At that point, Sarnia was the only Canadian left in the running.”

Sarnia, located on the eastern shores of the St. Clair River in southwestern Ontario, has traditionally been a hub for the petrochemical industry. However, the community is now transforming some of those resources towards the biochemical industry, with research and development and education components added to compliment the emerging industries. 

The assessment of the remaining locations involved looking at a series of factors that would be important for the new plant, including cost, government support, feedstock availability, service tie-ins, resource availability and logistics. After careful consideration, BioAmber announced in August of 2011 that it had chosen Sarnia as the site of its new bio-succinic acid plant, in a joint venture with Mitsui and Co.

Hartmann noted that, while all of these important factors were met by Sarnia, there was one specific aspect that made the community stand out.

“Sarnia’s location is ideal to ship product to the United States, to Europe and to Asia. It is centrally located for that, and that is important to us because we do have customers in all three of these areas.”

Since making the decision to build in Sarnia, additional factors have become apparent that did not gain appreciable consideration during the decision-making process, but now have become keys to the success of the project.

 “The personnel in Sarnia, the history of building large chemical facilities and the abundance of qualified workers were also factors that we didn’t appreciate as much as we should have,” noted Hartmann.

The commercial-scale bio-succinic production plant in Sarnia is a US $125-million project. The plant is located in a bioindustrial park purchased from Lanxess, which produces synthetic rubber for Butyl Rubber. The site is located in the chemical core of Sarnia, surrounded by massive petrochemical producers such as DuPont, Suncor, Imperial Oil, Shell Canada and Praxair. At capacity, the plant will produce 30,000MT of bio-succinic acid per year, making it the largest plant of its kind in the world.

Bio versus petro
Succinic acid would have traditionally been made in a chemical valley similar to Sarnia. But the discovery of the bio-based version of the acid has changed the production focus away from petroleum.

Both the petroleum and bio versions of succinic acid have the same chemical formula – C4H6O4. The variation between the two acids is just a few parts per million at production scale.

The cost of producing bio-based succinic acid is significantly cheaper than that of the petroleum-based product. Hartmann estimates that bio-succinic acid uses two-thirds less energy to produce than petroleum succinic acid. That cost difference makes bio-succinic acid, essentially, “the best molecule for the biotech/bioindustrial route.”

The reason for the savings is that the biorefining process has a strong ability to convert sugars into succinic acid.

“From a pound of sugar, the theoretical yield is actually more than a pound of product,” explains Hartmann. “That’s because we sequester the CO2 and part of the carbon for the bio-succinic comes from the CO2.”

But what makes the increased commercialization of bio-succinic acid more important is the environmental impact of its production. Bio-succinic acid produces zero carbon emissions. Petroleum-based production emits seven pounds of CO2 gas for every pound of succinic acid produced.

This is a potential game-changer for the biochemical industry, producing a chemical superior to its petroleum equivalent while producing no greenhouse gas emissions. Hartmann expects that this will result in the end of global production of succinic acid from petroleum in a few years very similar to what has happened for citric acid

Moving towards production
Construction of the Sarnia facility continues to move forward on schedule. AMEC was hired on as the primary engineer for the plant, and they have been successful with the design, engineering and procurement of the needed materials for the site. As a result, BioAmber is still targeting early 2015 for completion of construction.

BioAmber has implemented a scale of attainable production targets for the bio-succinic plant. The plan includes 50 per cent production by the end of 2015, 85 per cent production by the end of 2016 and 100 per cent production by the end of 2017.

“It has been a multi-year process to get to where we are today,” says Hartmann. “We are very excited to continue construction and get the facility ready. As of right now, we are very optimistic and really looking forward to having the plant start up.”

 bioamber


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