Japan Chemical Makers to Tap Biomaterials for Plastic

Major Japanese chemical companies including Asahi Kasei and Sumitomo Chemical are moving to mass produce plastic raw materials from plant sugar-derived bioethanol, amid a growing global push to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Tokyo-headquartered Asahi Kasei plans to begin domestic production on the scale of 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes by around 2027.

Ethanol can be reacted in a high-temperature environment with a catalyst to produce the plastic raw materials of ethylene, propylene and toluene in a single process. Asahi Kasei has made advances in the development of catalysts and production processes for efficient ethanol reactions.

Asahi Kasei’s polyacetal resin TENAC™ Source: BusinessWire

Bioethanol, made by fermenting plant sugars, offers “the most plentiful and inexpensive candidate for biomass feedstock” said Asahi Kasei President Koshiro Kudo, with 100 billion liters produced annually worldwide. 

Currently, most bioethanol on the market is derived from corn in the U.S., where production methods can be carbon intensive. 

Asahi Kasei is considering the use of bioethanol made mainly from sugarcane produced in Brazil. There, plant-derived raw materials are used for fuel during bioethanol production, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and plans to use the bio-methanol procured from Mitsui to produce engineering plastics in Japan with a lower carbon footprint than the current product lineup. 

The company expects to be able to convert some of its manufacturing facilities that produce ethylene from naphtha — a flammable substance derived from crude oil — into bioethanol processing plants. The company has a total of 12 facilities in Japan that produce ethylene and other products, including one jointly operated with Mitsubishi Chemical.

Source: Chemindigest 

The beginning of the project is Mitsui procures RNG (renewable natural gas) generated from municipal waste landfills in the form of biogas, and uses it in the mass-balance approach to produce bio-methanol at Fairway Methanol, a local joint venture. Asahi Kasei and Mitsui have acquired the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC PLUS certification) in their supply chains in order to reliably convey their sustainability features to final products. 

This will enable Asahi Kasei to procure bio-methanol manufactured by Mitsui, and to sell various types of engineering plastics made with this raw material allocated using the mass-balance approach. 

Asahi Kasei is considering introducing the bioethanol technology to its own group companies and offering it to other companies in preparation for the start of mass production in 2027. With its initial ethylene production target of 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes accounting for less than 1% of domestic ethylene output, the company will consider expanding production in the future. 

Meanwhile, Sumitomo Chemical expects to establish a test facility in 2022 that that can use bioethanol as a feedstock to produce basic chemicals, with commercialization expected by around fiscal 2025. 

Source: AsahiKasei 

But compared to foreign competitors, Japanese companies are playing catch-up. Braskem, a major Brazilian chemicals company, possesses technology to make sugarcane pulp-derived ethanol for the production of plastic raw materials. It started the world’s first mass production factory in Brazil in the early 2010s, using only plants as raw materials. 

Plant-based plastic shipments in Japan amounted to only about 50,000 tonnes as of 2018. In 2019, the government compiled a strategy for plastic resource recycling to reduce plastics’ environmental burden, setting a target of using around 2 million tonnes of plant-based plastics per year by 2030. 

As domestic companies begin to move into mass production, Braskem is also considering bringing some production to Japan in 2026 or later. 

Biomass plastics account for less than 1% of total plastic production, but global demand is expected to grow rapidly. According to the European Bioplastics Association, production capacity was 2.21 million tonnes in 2022, an increase of 24% from the previous year. The figure is expected to nearly triple to 6.29 million tonnes in 2027. 

Depending on the type, biomass plastics are 50% to five times more expensive than those derived from petrochemicals. 

“Price has been a barrier to widespread use,” according to Mitsubishi Chemical. “Policies to encourage use are needed.”