Ethylene is a hidden organic chemical that is crucial to modern human life. It is hidden because it is a precursor to products used in most households worldwide but not sold directly to consumers. For example, ethylene is the chemical base for polyethylene (PET) bottles, car parts, buckets, pipes, and plastic sheeting. These items are not mere trinkets. They are integral to the food, water, and shelter provisioning systems that define human well-being. Ethylene molecules surround us, but people never “see” them. As a result, most people are unaware of the climate change and economic impacts of ethylene.
The rise in oil prices, environmental issues due to toxic emissions caused by the combustion of fossil fuel and depletion of fossil fuel resources have a demand for an alternative pathway to produce green energy from waste streams. Ethylene is one of the major raw materials for the petrochemical industry, and it is primarily obtained from fossil fuel sources through steam reforming of petroleum or natural gas feedstocks.
In contrast to traditional ethylene, which is manufactured from fossil fuels through thermochemical processes, Bio-ethylene (bio-based ethylene) is produced from bio-based material. Bioethanol produced from biomass is alleged to be a competitive alternative to bio ethylene production as it is environmentally friendly and economical.
Similar to traditional ethylene, bio-ethylene can be used as a raw material for a variety of organic chemicals and plastics. Bio-ethylene is generally produced from bioethanol. Fermentation of pre-treated biomass results in the production of bioethanol. Bioethanol is primarily used as a blend in transportation fuel.
Oxy Low Carbon Ventures carbon-negative biotechnology
Occidental’s venture arm — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures — announced in April 2021 its plans to construct and operate a one metric ton per month bio-ethylene pilot plant featuring Houston-based Cemvita Factory’s technology that biomimics photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks. The new plant will scale the process, which was jointly developed between Cemvita and OLCV, and is expected sometime next year, according to a press release from Oxy.
“Today bio-ethylene is made from bio-ethanol, which is made from sugarcane, which in turn was created by photosynthesizing CO2. Our bio-synthetic process simply requires CO2, water and light to produce bio-ethylene, and that’s why it saves a lot of cost and carbon emissions,” says Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, in the release. “This project is a great example of how Cemvita is applying industrial-strength synthetic biology to help our clients lower their carbon footprint while creating new revenue streams.”
Oxy and Cemvita have been working together for a while, and in 2019, OLCV invested an undisclosed amount into the startup. The investment, according to the release, was made to jointly explore how these advances in synthetic biology can be used for sustainability efforts in the bio-manufacturing of OxyChem’s products. “This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business,” says Robert Zeller, vice president of technology at OLCV, in a news release.
Moji Karimi founded the company with his sister and Cemvita CTO, Tara, in 2017. The idea was to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something else. The first iteration of the technology turned CO2 into sugar — the classic photosynthesis process. Karimi says the idea was to create this process for space, so that astronauts can turn the CO2 they breathe out into a calorie source. “Nature provided the inspiration,” noted Dr. Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. “We took a gene from a banana and genetically engineered it into our CO2-utilizing host microorganism. We are now significantly increasing its productivity with the goal to achieve commercial metrics that we have defined alongside OLCV.”
The bio-ethylene market can be segmented based on raw materials used for production, application, end-user industry, and region. Production of bio-ethylene can be attained from sugars, starch, and ligno-cellulosic biomass. The sub-segments can be further divided into sugary biomass which includes sugarcane, sugar beets, sweet sorghum; starchy biomass which includes wheat, corn and barley; and ligno-cellulosic biomass which is obtained from wood, straw, and grasses.
Bio-ethylene is employed in the production of several organic chemicals and plastics such as high and low density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE), polyethylene chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
In terms of end-user industry, the market can be classified into packaging, detergents, lubricants, and additives.
Based on region, the bio-ethylene market can be divided into Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East & Africa, North America, and Latin America.
The global bio-ethylene market has not attained maturity except in Brazil. Stringent rules and regulations regarding the environment are expected to propel the market of bio-ethylene. Bio-based ethylene reduces the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) by lessening the usage of fossil fuels. Till date, reduction of GHGs and petrochemical energy through bio-based ethylene has been achieved up to 50% and 65%, respectively, as compared to the use of traditional ethylene. Bio-based ethylene is expected to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels; however, the cost of fossil fuels and bio-ethylene is a crucial factor in deciding the extent of their usage.
The cost of producing bio-ethylene is high due to the availability and low-price of biomass feedstock. This acts as a restraint to the bio-ethylene market. The cost of bio-ethylene is almost 1.5 to 2 times higher than that of petrochemical ethylene. However, bio-plastics are inexpensive as compared to petrochemical plastics. Ligno-cellulosic biomass is expensive than sugar and starch biomass and the cost of producing from ligno-cellulosic material is also high. Production of sugarcane is low-priced in Brazil. Large-scale production of sugarcane is done in India, South America, and some parts of Asia. Corn is produced in large quantities in the U.S. Europe accounts for one-third of the global production of sugar beets. Food versus fuel is a limiting factor in the production of bio-ethylene from sugar and starch feedstock. Ligno-cellulosic biomass can be grown on unfertile land. Bioethanol, the precursor of bio-ethylene, is primarily used for transportation fuel, though it can be in other applications too. This restricts the large-scale production of bio-based ethylene. Similarly, demand for biomass feedstock for application in heat, electricity, and biofuels production is expected to increase in the near future.
Brazil is the largest market of bioethanol. The production of bioethanol in Brazil is higher than that of petrochemical ethanol. Brazil and the U.S. contribute to more than half of the global production of bioethanol. India and Brazil have the advantage of availability of inexpensive biomass. China is an emerging market for bio-ethylene in terms of production. Asia Pacific is projected to constitute a major market share in the near future due to the vast availability of biomass. Demand for bio-ethylene is estimated to soar in Europe due to the rise in awareness about health and environment and regulations for bio-based production. North America is estimated to expand during the forecast period led by the technological advancements and research and development activities in the region. Major players in the global bio based ethylene market include Atol, Cargill, The Dow Chemical Company, and Alberta.