Petrochemical firm, biochemical developers to build biorefinery

By Luke Geiver | July 25, 2012

The demand for butadiene, a material used to make rubber tires and electrical appliances, has brought together a group of biobased chemical production companies with an Italian-based petrochemical firm. Versalis, a subsidiary of the Italian petrochemical company Eni, has signed a memorandum of understanding with biobased chemical process technology provider Genomatica out of the U.S., and, Novamont, an Italian firm specializing in the production of biodegradable plastics.

Through the MOU, the three firms will focus on the production of butadiene, using Genomatica’s ability and intellectual property to process non-food feedstocks into polymer-grade butadiene at a commercial level. Novamont will bring know-how in processing non-food feedstocks, and Versalis will provide financial backing and expertise in catalysis process development and large-scale production engineering. In late 2011, Versalis formed a 50-50 joint venture with Novamont called Matrica. The joint venture is aimed at producing biobased chemicals.

Versalis intends to build and operate multiple large-scale butadiene biorefinieries, eventually licensing the process used in Europe, Africa and Asia. For Versalis, the MOU allows the company to secure a supply of butadiene into the future. The key intermediate is important to the elastomers portion of Versalis business, according the company and the material that is extracted from C4 sugars “is increasingly subject to availability problems.”

“Decreasing supplies and a lack of dedicated butadiene production facilities have resulted in significant long-term pressure on the price and volatility of the chemical,” the company said, “which in turn increases the price of butadiene-based products, including tires.”

Daniele Ferrari, CEO of Versalis, said that by using Genomatica’s process technology the company can expand C4 production for the purpose of elastomers at times when the market is experiencing a critical time.

“Together we will have a great opportunity to apply Novamont’s concept of third generation integrated biorefinieries to a well-known chemical like butadiene, applying new biotechnological and chemical processes to local biomass for an innovative industry at the local level,” according to Catia Batioli, CEO for Novamont. Earlier this year, Genomatica and Novamont signed a definitive agreement to build and operate a butanediol (BDO) biorefinery.