The Poly-Refinery Plan

The Ohio Soybean Council and the Battelle Memorial Institute are working together in the Buckeye State's capital city to pioneer new uses for soybean oil and glycerin. Researchers tell Biodiesel Magazine that polyol demand, and the ability of the compound to produce coatings, polymers and other materials provides a vast value-added stream for the biodiesel by-product.
By Nicholas Zeman | March 15, 2007
Battelle Memorial Institute got its unique start long ago when Ohio industrialist Gordon Battelle, who made his fortune in steel, provided for the creation of the institute in his will after he died in 1923 at age 40.

The Columbus, Ohio-based institute has since grown into the world's largest nonprofit research organization. It employs more than 20,000 staff members and manages $3.4 billion in annual research and development efforts. It also manages five U.S. DOE laboratories: Brookhaven National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Recently, the institute has offered its expertise to the biodiesel industry, which has a strong market right outside the institute's doors. In 2006, Ohio growers harvested 217.1 million bushels of soybeans from 4.62 million acres, according to USDA estimates. Finding new uses for soybeans is the impetus behind the institute's biodiesel research efforts.

More specifically, scientists at Battelle are studying soy glycerin and its functionality as a feedstock in the manufacturing of polyols, materials used in the production of a variety of household products.

The research institute recently worked closely with Ohio State University (OSU) to form the Ohio Bio-Products Innovation Center (OBIC), also in Columbus, that staff-member Dennis Hall says was an Ohio economic development initiative. The increased efficiency of the biodiesel industry and its efforts to grow additional revenue is a concern of soybean growers invested in the renewable fuel. One of the main issues surrounding the growth of the biodiesel industry is what to do with the glut of glycerin, a by-product of the production process. "The issue with glycerin is a fairly widespread concern so there is a lot of research in that area currently underway," Hall says.

The Ohio Soybean Council (OSC) says that farmers have invested almost $8 million in research and new use developments through Battelle and OSU for nearly a decade, and the partnership has been on the cutting edge for developing industrial uses for soybeans.

The OSC earned research and development awards for soy-based plasticizers in 2002 and toners in 2003. "Much of our work is funded by the soybean checkoff board and the council," says Bhima Vijayendran, vice president of technology commercialization for Battelle, which OSC recently contracted with to conduct research aimed at increasing the percentage of soybean oil in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes. By chemically modifying the structure of soybean oil molecules, Vijayendran and others are looking to enable manufacturers to use up to 25 percent soy oil in the plasticizing process.

Producing Polyols
Vijayendran believes polyols are the key to finding ways to use the low-cost abundant supply of glycerin. "We can mix glycerin and soybean oil, and through a chemical modification (ozone treatment and/or selective oxidation) make soya-polyols," he says. With soy oil at 30 cents per pound and glycerin at 10 cents per pound, Vijayendran says polyols can be manufactured from these feedstocks that are competitive with the petroleum-based products.

Vijayendran reports that glycerin "already is in a glut situation," and the DOE projects that, amid increased biodiesel production, glycerin prices could drop even further, creating a potential bargain for polyol manufacturers. Polyols are used to make polyurethane foams, polyester, adhesives and other goods. The polyol market is huge in the United States at nearly 1 billion pounds, making it an immense value-added opportunity for the biodiesel industry to pursue, Vijayendran says. "If you look at polyols, the price has doubled recently," he says. [Polyol] producers are experiencing a lot of pressure-being squeezed by the high cost of petroleum."

Because of low reactivity, however, soy-based polyols need to be blended with petroleum counterparts-in much the same way that biodiesel is blended with petroleum diesel-to make certain specialty products. "Our technology offers a more reactive, more versatile soya-polyol than is currently available on the market with heightened potential to replace petroleum equivalents," Vijayendran says, adding that polyol and polyurethane manufacturers like the biodiesel industry are looking to add to their feedstock portfolios. Ideally an industry wouldn't want to be held hostage to the volatility of its raw materials, therefore soy oil, which has proven more price stable in recent years than crude oil, has been receiving more attention.

Battelle isn't the only one that's delving into the polyols realm. In December, Cargill Inc. announced that it had won a technology award from the Alliance for the Polyurethanes Industry for its BiOH bio-based brand of polyols. Cargill's product line references the fact that a polyol is a compound containing more than one hydroxyl group (OH). These molecular groups are attractive to scientists because they're functionally open to organic reactions, creating polymers. However, the materials produced to date have been far from perfect, Vijayendran says. "The challenge with current soy-based polyols is that they have a low reactivity, and also have a color and a 'beanie' odor," Vijayendran says. This is a concern in some applications, like coatings manufacturing, where materials need to be colorless and odorless. "The polyols we can make at Battelle are colorless and odorless," he says.

Multi-Faceted Biorefineries
Battelle's business strategy is to license technology to interested companies. For the past 12 years, Vijayendran has worked at Battelle with a focus on polymer-surface science and engineering. "We want to take our ideas, demonstrate their feasibility at the lab scale, apply for patents and then use that as a basis for discussions with industrial manufacturing and other commercial companies that may be interested in licensing the technology," Vijayendran says. "I also have a [master's degree in business administration], so I know something about the business aspects of developing new technologies."

The new technology would change a biodiesel plant into a multi-faceted biorefinery with multiple product streams. "In a petroleum refinery, you can make fuel, but you can also make plastics and polymers, Vijayendran says. "You can even use some of the waste streams to make asphalt. Similarly for a biodiesel refinery, every stream that's coming out of that plant has to have value-added revenue if it's going to be successful."

A 100 MMgy biodiesel refinery is going to generate about 60 million to 75 million pounds of glycerin every year. "If you take our approach, then you can make about 200 million pounds of polyols, and polyols are currently selling for about $1 per pound," Vijayendran says. "So you would be adding about $200 million in revenue. Of course this would require a capital investment, but from the economic analysis we have done, it's manageable."

Since most industrial-scale biodiesel refineries, produce fuel from virgin vegetable oils-most predominantly soy oil in the United States-and all of them produce glycerin, logistical advantages for polyol production are already in place where biodiesel is manufactured. "Our view is that one of these refineries can make biodiesel for transportation fuel, and add the necessary process steps and investment to be able to manufacture polyols for the plastics and polymers industries," Vijayendran says. "They could do this at a cost that would be competitive with petroleum." Therefore, according to Battelle, biodiesel plants must evolve into biorefineries with multiple revenue streams, multiple processes and multiple products to be the most successfully sustainable and economically dynamic. "It is important to note, that what I describe is in the very early stages of [research and development] with no product today, but we are developing a model for biodiesel plants to grow their businesses through making polyols," Vijayendran says.

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 746-8385.
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