Covestro says it achieved this breakthrough by collaborating with partners on the development of a completely new process, initially in the laboratory. Following success in the lab, Covestro plans to further develop the process together with partners from industry and research. The first step is to upscale the process in a pilot plant with the ultimate goal of enabling the production of bio-based aniline on an industrial scale.
About 5 million tonnes of aniline are produced annually worldwide, Covestro reports, and this figure has been increasing by an average of about 5% every year. The company has a production capacity of about 1 million tonnes and requires aniline as a precursor for rigid polyurethane foam, a highly efficient insulating material used in buildings and refrigeration systems.
“The market is showing great interest in ecologically beneficial products based on renewable raw materials,” says Covestro’s Chief Commercial Officer Dr Markus Steilemann. “Being able to derive aniline from biomass is another key step towards making the chemical and plastics industries less dependent on fossil raw materials and market fluctuations.”
“The process currently under development uses renewable raw materials and produces aniline with a much better CO2 footprint than that manufactured with standard technology,” adds Covestro Project Manager Dr Gernot Jäger. “This also enables our customers to markedly improve the CO2 footprint of their aniline-based products.”
The industry currently derives aniline from benzene, a petroleum-based raw material. But industrial sugar, which is already derived on large scale from, for example, feed corn, straw and wood, can be used instead. The new process uses a microorganism as a catalyst to first convert the industrial sugar into an aniline precursor. The aniline is then derived by means of chemical catalysis in a second step.
“This means 100% of the carbon in the aniline comes from renewable raw materials,” explains Jäger.
Covestro is working with the University of Stuttgart, the CAT Catalytic Centre at RWTH Aachen University and Bayer to further develop the process.