Virent produces biobased paraxylene

By Erin Voegele | June 08, 2011

Wisconsin-based Virent Energy Systems Inc. recently announced it has successfully converted plant sugars into paraxylene (PX). According to the company, when combined with existing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) technology, the PX molecule allows manufacturers to offer customers 100 percent biobased PET and packaging.

“The primary demand for paraxylene comes from the supply chain that makes polyester,” said Kelly Morgan, Virent’s marketing manager. “It’s a polymer that is used today…in fabrics and also in packaging—specifically soda bottles. A lot of colas and waters are going to be packaged in bottles that are made with PET polyester, and that is what the PX goes into.”

According to Morgan, 30 percent of a traditional plastic bottle is made from mono ethylene glycol (MEG). “The remaining 70 percent of that is the PET component,” she said. “Up until this time, the PET component that they added has been derived from crude oil…Our solution is plant based. We have taken plant sugars—hydrocarbons from plants—and created those same paraxylene molecules, allowing for packaging companies, polyester companies, or fiber companies to offer a 100 percent natural solution.” The PX becomes a component of PET, Morgan continues.

The PX that has been produced by Virent to date has been manufactured from sugar beets. “In this particular situation, the paraxylene was made from beet sugar that is liquefied and broken down into its basic hydrocarbon components,” Morgan said. “Those are passed through a catalytic process.”

“Today confirms a significant achievement for global leaders in consumer products,” said Virent CEO, Lee Edwards. “Our plant-based PX paves the way for 100% sustainable, recyclable products and packaging with complete freedom from crude oil.”

Virent also recently announced the successful production of renewable gasoline from corn stover and pine harvest forest residuals. Both products were produced at the company’s 10,000 gallon-per-year demonstration plant in Madison, Wisconsin. According to Morgan, Virent intends to have commercial scale PX production online by 2014, with commercial scale renewable gasoline production operational the following year.