Why is the Chemical Industry Pursuing Bio Based Acrylic Acid

From the polymers in baby diapers to paint and paper, the list of common household items that are manufactured using acrylic acid is endless. Ever since acrylic acid was first used to produce superabsorbent polymers that can absorb up to 100 times their own weight in liquid in the 1980s, the world’s consumption of acrylic acid has been booming, with demand increasing by as much as 8% per year in some counties. Unfortunately, acrylic acid is manufactured from a limited and expensive resource: propylene, a petroleum based derivative. As uncertain conditions in the Middle East drive up oil prices and the output of former exporters such as China continues to drop, the chemical industry is starting to search for a biological alternative to petroleum based acrylic acid.

The benefits of developing a feasible bio-based manufacturing process for acrylic oil are enormous. The rising prices of propylene, coupled with the increasing demand for acrylic acid have lead to a spike in the price of acrylic acid, which has nearly doubled in the last two years. The prices of acrylic acid would no longer be controlled by oil prices, which are susceptible to rapid changes, stabilizing acrylic acid prices. Without the need for propylene, the cost of manufacturing acrylic acid would drop. Moreover, the manufacturing process would have far less environmental impact, as propylene no longer has to be distilled from processed oil.

Chemical manufacturing companies such as Dow Chemical Company are now eyeing a readily available material to act as a substitute for propylene: sugar. A collaboration between Dow Chemical Company and OPX Biotechnologies could allow production and marketing of acrylic acid without any petroleum derivatives by as soon as 2014. DOW’s bio-based manufacturing method involves converting corn or cane derived sugars into 3-hydroxypropanoic acid using a genetically engineered microbe, which can then be converted into acrylic acid through a dehydration reaction.

From their pilot process results, OPX biotechnology has concluded that the cost of manufacturing acrylic acid using cane based sugars as feedstock is around 55 cents per pound, with the current price of petroleum based acrylic acid being around 75 cents per pound. OPX believes that this can be improved to around 50 cents per pound with corn based sugars and 40 cents per pound for cane based sugars. This represents a possible up to 47% decrease in the manufacturing costs of acrylic acid. Moreover, the environmental impacts of the bio-based process are far less than petroleum manufactured acrylic acid; the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the biological process was 70% less than its petroleum based counterpart.

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