Verbio Is Pushing Into Renewable Chemicals With a Commercial-Scale Ethenolysis Project

German biofuels producer Verbio is pushing into renewable chemicals with a €80 million -100 million commercial-scale ethenolysis project that will use rapeseed-based biodiesel to produce specialty chemicals.

  • Strategic move to renewable chemicals;
  • 17,000 tonnes/year of 1-decene, 32,000 tonnes/year of methyl 9-decenoate, (9-DAME);
  • Produced from renewable rapeseed methyl ester (RME), using ethenolysis and innovative metathesis catalysts.

Ethenolysis is a chemical process in which terminal olefins are degraded. In chemical terms, it is a cross metathesis.

The “VerBioChem” project, adjacent to Verbio’s bio-refinery at the Bitterfeld chemicals production hub in Saxony-Anhalt state, is expected to be commissioned in 2025, Andreas Kohl, the company’s head of specialty chemicals and catalysts, told ICIS.

Regular production at the “first-of-its-kind” commercial-scale ethenolysis  plant should start in 2026, he said. Groundbreaking is scheduled for May.

“To our knowledge, it will be the only plant worldwide to operate an ethenolysis process,” he said.

1-decene is mainly used to produce polyalphaolefins (PAO), which are used as group IV lubricants, Kohl said.

The 1-decene market is estimated at about 500,000-700,000 tonnes/year, according to Kohl.  Producers of fossil-based 1-decene include INEOS, ExxonMobil, and Chevron Phillips Chemical (CPChem), among others.

9-DAME has applications in surfactants, lubricants, polymers and other specialty markets.

While 9-DAME is currently not available on the market in larger quantities, Verbio sees it as a “platform molecule” for use in solvents, surfactants and lubricants, Kohl said.

The Bitterfeld plant might also produce C18 diacids in various forms in the medium term, he said.

Verbio has been in contact for a couple of years with partners and on request supplies customers with kilogram samples of 1-decene and 9-DAME from a pilot plant, he added.

The company has developed a unique in-house process for ethenolysis, based on proprietary metathesis catalysts from its 100%-owned subsidiary, XiMo, Kohl said.

The process allows the use of ethylene “as kind of a scissor” to split the biodiesel, he said.

XiMo specializes in metathesis catalysts, specifically of “Schrock-type” tungsten, molybdenum and ruthenium complexes, he said.

Richard Schrock, one of the founders of XiMo, was co-winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on developing the olefin metathesis method in organic synthesis.

To serve the ethenolysis plant’s captive needs, as well as the wider chemical industry, XiMo is investing in new capacity close to Budapest, Hungary

The 10 tonne/year of metathesis catalyst project in Hungary, which will proceed parallel with the ethenolysis project in Bitterfeld, is due to be in production in 2026.

XiMo’s metathesis catalysts “represents a new tool for the chemical industry”, for use in industrial processes in the renewable, polymer, flavors and fragrances, agrochemicals and various other markets, Kohl said.

Verbio’s biofuels are mainly sold into the energy market, “but this is not necessarily the future for us”, Kohl said.

While the company has existing biodiesel-linked chemicals production (phytosterol and glycerin), it decided several years ago to expand in renewable chemicals in a bigger way – driven by an ambition to add more value to biodiesel, reduce Verbio’s dependence on the biofuels energy market, and help “defossilize” the chemical industry, he said.

“We want to become much more independent of the political decisions that are influencing the biofuels market, and chemicals will be a major part of the company in the future,” Kohl said.

Although the chemical industry keeps working to reduce its carbon footprint, most of its products are based on carbon and will continue to be so, he said.

The challenge, therefore, is to defossilize the industry, which means getting away from fossil-based carbon, leaving three main sources of carbon: carbon capture; recycling; and biomass, Kohl said.

“Biomass is a very versatile, a very interesting source of carbon, and it is here today” as companies are already producing chemicals from biomass, he said.

Verbio, with its expertise in biomass, is well positioned to expand in renewable chemicals, he said.

With the ethenenolysis plant, Verbio will start to serve the chemical industry “with unique, renewable and biobased molecules with a low CO2 footprint”, Kohl said.

“This will enable our customers to take a big step towards climate neutrality, saving CO2, attacking scope three emissions, and it will help to defossilize the chemical industry,” he said.

The carbon footprint of the new ethenolysis plant will be “at least” about 70-80% lower than that of a fossil-based 1-decene plant, he said.

Verbio is undertaking the project’s basic engineering and execution in-house, rather than contracting it out, he noted.

Rapeseed (known as canola in North America) is readily available in Germany as it is part of crop rotation, Kohl said.

While using rapeseed for chemical production could trigger debates similar to the “food versus fuels” controversy, it is important to realize that only about 40% of the mass of rapeseed is oils, he said.

The remaining 60% is a protein-sugar fraction that is needed in cattle feed “to close the protein gap” and thus supports the food sector.

If Germany did not have the rapeseed protein, it would have to import even more soya from South America, he said.

He also noted that the use of biomass to make biofuels and other renewable products has been found to stabilize the overall agricultural market in Europe and provide farmers with sustainable income, thus keeping them in business.

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