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Lux: Butadiene scarcity opens up opportunities for bio- and methane-based processes

7 July 2014

With the continued tightening of the supply of conventionally produced butadiene, the demand growth for tires and polymers from emerging economies and the volatility of the natural rubber market will continue to drive efforts in renewable butadiene, says Lux Research. At this stage, most of the leading developers in the field are already in developmental partnerships.

Butadiene is an important petrochemical with a market size of more than $40 billion, and around 60% of butadiene goes into synthetic rubber production. The relatively recent exploitation of shale gas has resulted in butadiene scarcity, since natural gas chemical feedstocks have fewer C4 hydrocarbons than oil feedstocks used in petrochemical production. This shortage translates into the continuous climb in the price of butadiene, which at $0.70/lb is currently more than 10% to 30% higher than it was last year.

The supply gap, which is projected to widen as shale gas exploitation intensifies, creates an incentive for technology developers to engineer novel butadiene production strategies that take in either biomass or natural gas as feedstock, according to Lux Research. For example, in June, BASF and Linde announced a collaboration for the development of on-purpose production of butadiene from butane. A similar announcement from Honeywell UOP came shortly thereafter, with the company licensing TPC Group’s OXO-D technology to convert butane to butadiene.

Lux has been following progress of start-ups focusing on bio-based butadiene. Global Bioenergies, in partnership with Synthos, is pursuing a direct route to isobutadiene through genetically modified Escherichia coli. (Earlier post.) LanzaTech has ongoing projects with Invista (earlier post) and SK Innovation (earlier post) to produce butadiene either from LanzaTech’s carbon monoxide based 2,3-butanediol or through direct fermentation.

Genomatica is collaborating with Versalis and Braskem to develop butadiene from renewable feedstocks (earlier post). Additionally, Braskem recently opened a research and development (R&D) center where one of its R&D projects is on renewable butadiene. Last year, Cobalt Technologies announced partnership agreements with two undisclosed Asian companies for the development of a biomass-to-butadiene solution, through Cobalt’s n-butanol production technology. (Earlier post.)

Tire manufacturers are also looking to hedge against future feedstock scarcity and are investing in the field. For example, Michelin is collaborating with Axens and Tereos to convert biomass to butadiene. (Earlier post.)

The projected scarcity of butadiene for synthetic rubber production has created an incentive for tire and synthetic rubber productions to explore various alternative rubber production methods. Although renewable butadiene production receives most of the limelight, some companies are looking at other strategies, including exploring the use of natural rubber substitute (guayule or rice husk) and creating a newer version of synthetic rubber from bio-isoprene.

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