Braskem starts up ethanol-to-ethylene plant

By Susanne Retka Schill | September 23, 2010
Posted Oct. 1, 2010

Brazilian Braskem A.S. inaugurated the first commercial-scale plant in late September to produce ethylene from ethanol in Triunfo, in the Brazilian southern state of Rio Grande. With a production capacity of 200,000 tons of green polyethylene per year, the landmark project is equipped with technology developed by the petro-chemical company requiring investments worth $278 million.

"Braskem's green plastics are made from CO2 sequestered from the atmosphere through sugarcane photosynthesis. It is also the most competitive of all plastics made from renewable sources. And this has been widely acknowledged by the market, which recorded demand three times greater than the plant's capacity," says the company's CEO Bernardo Gradin.

Ethylene specification took place 12 hours after the plant's start up, on Sept. 3, and green polyethylene production began a week later. The polymerization process, which converts ethylene into resin, is carried out in Braskem's existing plants in the Triunfo Complex. The final product has the same properties and characteristics as conventional polyethylene, enabling clients to process it without the need for any adjustments in their machinery.

Over the past year, Braskem has established several partnerships to supply green polyethylene to domestic and international clients who have adopted sustainable development as a pillar of their market strategy including Tetra Pak, Toyota Tsusho, Shiseido, Natura, Acinplas, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Petropack. The most common applications of plastics from renewable sources are personal care and cleaning products, food packaging, toys and home appliances.

The green polyethylene project is built upon the highly developed Brazilian sugar cane ethanol industry. The new plant will consume around 462 million liters (120 million gallons) of ethanol per year, which will initially come from the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Paraná. The company is the largest industrial consumer of ethanol in Brazil, absorbing around 700 million liters per year for the production of green polyethylene and the fuel additive ETBE.

Braskem contracts with Brazilian ethanol producers will include a code of conduct establishing sustainability criteria. "The code of conduct has been welcomed by our suppliers because they realize that a commitment to production chain sustainability is in the interests of every link in the chain, as well as meeting the demands of society as a whole," said Hardi Schuck, in announcing the company's sustainability initiative. Schuck is responsible for raw materials and supplies at Braskem's Basic Petrochemicals Unit.

The five-page Code of Conduct for Ethanol Suppliers specifies best practices regarding life cycle analysis, biodiversity, good environmental practices, burning, labor rights and human rights. While the best practices are laid out in general terms, the document doesn't go into detail on how proof of compliance will be established beyond saying it is the responsibility of the supplier to orient its supply chain in full compliance and Baskrem can ask for documentation, establish criteria and procedures to monitor compliance including the possibility of third party verification.

While most ethylene today is petroleum based, the Baskrem process returns to the roots of ethylene production which historically was from ethanol. The first published literature about the catalytic dehydration of ethanol to ethylene dates back to 1797, according to a Baskrem research scientist. Generating ethylene from ethanol is essentially a dehydration process, using a catalyst and heat. Ethylene is a chemical intermediate used to produce many different products including polyethylene—the most widely used plastic— polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene. Baskrem also has a research project underway to develop a green polypropylene process in partnership with Novozymes which will supply its fermentation technology combined with Braskem's expertise in chemical technology and thermoplastics.

Braskem is a Brazilian-based petrochemical company which has been expanding its involvement in biobased polymers in recent years. It describes itself as the largest petrochemical company in the Americas and the world's third largest producer of polypropylene. In early 2010, Braskem announced the acquisition of the polypropylene business of American Sunoco Chemicals, creating Braskem America and expanding to 29 industrial units: 26 in Brazil and three in the United States.