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A breakthrough by Covestro: Key chemical derived from biomass

Articles
2017-048-1
Bio-based aniline production: project manager Dr. Gernot Jäger (middle) with his team (Dr. Swantje Behnken, left, and Dr. Wolf Kloeckner, right) 

Covestro has achieved a new breakthrough in research. Company's experts were exploring the possibilities of using plant-based raw materials in polymer production. As a result, aniline, an important basic chemical, is now derivable from biomass. Until today, fossil raw materials had been exclusively used for aniline production.

Following the success of the brand new process in the lab, Covestro plans to further develop it jointly with its industry and research partners. The first phase will be upscaling in a pilot plant with the aim of enabling commercial bio-based aniline production. This achievement would be unprecedented in the entire chemical industry.

A brand new achievement

Some five million tons of aniline are produced worldwide every year, with an annual growth of about 5%. Covestro is among top aniline producers, boasting a production capacity of around one million tons. The company needs aniline for the production of rigid PU foam, a high-performance insulating material used in construction and refrigeration.

CCO of Covestro Dr. Markus Steilemann says, "The market is showing great interest in ecologically beneficial products based on renewable raw materials. Being able to derive aniline from biomass is another key step towards making the chemical and plastics industries less dependent on fossil raw materials and market fluctuations. With this, we are pursuing our vision of making the world a brighter place."

Covestro project manager Dr. Gernot Jäger explains: "The process currently under development uses renewable raw materials and produces aniline with a much better CO2 footprint than that manufactured with standard technology. This also enables our customers to markedly improve the CO2 footprint of their aniline-based products." Chemical reactions would thus take place under milder conditions. Environmental aspects of the process are currently being assessed by third-party institutes with required rigor.

100% of carbon from biomass

The traditional process derives aniline from benzene, a petroleum-based chemical. Though industrial sugar, derived massively from feed corn, straw and wood, can be used instead. The new process uses a microorganism as a 'catalyst' to trigger the conversion of industrial sugar into a precursor of aniline. In a second step, aniline is obtained by chemical catalysis. "This means 100% percent of carbon in the aniline comes from renewable raw materials," explains Jäger.

Covestro partners with the CAT Catalytic Center at RWTH Aachen University, the University of Stuttgart, and Bayer AG in order to bring the process to large-scale production. "This interdisciplinary, motivated team combines all the required expertise at a very high level and is the basis for continued success," confirms Jäger. The long-term research project will be funded for the following two years and a half via the FNR, an agency of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture of Germany.

The new process is though not a full premiere for Covestro, the company already using renewable raw materials in some of its products. One example is proprietary hardener for coatings with up to 70% of carbon content derived from biomass.
CO2 already accounts for up to 20% of the raw materials used for flexible PU foam production by Covestro in 2016.

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