Rubber Goes Renewable

Specialty chemicals company looks to Gevo to supply biobased inputs
By Erin Voegele | March 18, 2011

Lanxess, the world’s top synthetic rubber producer, is working to develop a dehydration technology that will allow it to use Gevo’s biobased isobutanol as a feedstock for butyl rubber production.

“Today all our raw materials come from oil,” says Ron Commander, head of the butyl rubber business at Lanxess and Gevo board member. “We’re looking to diversify and employ sustainable, biobased materials in our butyl rubber production process.”

Butyl rubber is commonly used to line the innermost surface of tires. “It’s impermeable, it doesn’t allow any air through and it doesn’t allow any moisture through,” Commander says. “It keeps the pressure in your tires.”

Lanxess is currently working to develop a technology that would dehydrate Gevo’s isobutanol to produce isobutene, which is the primary raw material used to make butyl rubber. The company has three production plants in various parts of the world that produce the material, one of which is located in Canada. If development of Lanxess’s dehydration technology proceeds as planned, a dehydration facility will be added to the company’s Canadian butyl rubber production facility. Isobutanol produced by Gevo in Minnesota would be shipped to Lanxess’s Canadian site, where it would be dehydrated and used as a raw material for butyl rubber production.

Commander says Lanxess intends to step up the biobased content of its butyl rubber incrementally over time, with an ultimate goal of biobased inputs accounting for 50 percent of the feedstock. Once success is achieved at the Canadian site, the company intends to begin work to add biobased capabilities at its other butyl rubber plants.

Lanxess and Gevo have already formed a nonbinding agreement to supply isobutanol to the site. According to Commander, his company expects to have completed work on its dehydration process in mid-2011. A binding off-take agreement between the two companies will be negotiated once development of the dehydration process is complete.

Lanxess is also a minority shareholder in Gevo, with 9.1 percent ownership. Lanxess originally invested $10 million in the company in May 2010, and made an additional $17 million investment in Gevo’s initial public offering.

 “As the world’s largest purchaser of isobutene, it is only prudent that we seek other supply options from renewable sources as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels,” says Axel Heitmann, chairman of the Lanxess board of management. “This investment also sharpens our focus on ‘green chemistry’ and sustainable production, which will gain in significance in the coming years.” 

—Erin Voegele