Partnering to Make Metathesis a Commercial Reality

In materials science, metathesis has a unique ability: it fills gaps. As Andy Corr, senior vice president of consumer ingredients for Elevance Renewable Science Inc., explained, “This technology has the ability to create di-functional materials. The functionality of esters from palm oil and olefins from petroleum can be brought together to form unique building blocks that combine the benefits of both materials.” For example, mildness can be combined with cleansing efficacy, or high performance with a silky smooth skin feel. “[The technology] creates unique performance characteristics and improves compatibilities … and enables the development of products that do all these things,” Corr added.

9-Decenoic methyl ester is one of the specialty materials produced by Elevance via olefin metathesis, an organic reaction that can break natural oils into pieces and recombine them without undesired by-products and hazardous wastes. However, the company was challenged to make this process commercially viable.

In 2010, Elevance announced a joint venture with Wilmar International Ltd. to open a commercial-scale manufacturing facility based on these processes and technologies in Gresik, Indonesia, Willmar specializes in palm oil cultivation and refining, and specialty fats and oleochemicals manufacturing and processing, among others. The joint venture facility began shipping to customers this month and will produce approximately 400 million pounds of specialty chemicals including the 9-decenoic methyl ester. The biorefinery will initially operate using palm oil, but it is capable of running on other renewable oil feedstocks including mustard and soybean, and eventually jatropha or algal oils.

“The reason we moved into the East first is that we were able to do so quickly with Wilmar, and the palm oil supply [for the olefin metathesis process] was already there on site,” explained Andy Shafer, executive vice president of consumer products for Elevance. “We are starting with palm oil but will move to other sources once the supply chains are in place.”

“Partnering up” is not new to cosmetics R&D. Universities, manufacturers, raw material suppliers, contract manufacturers and others regularly announce collaborations. So how do both parties benefit from such arrangements?

“All of our collaborations are focused on targeted areas,” explained Shafer. “For our work with Stepan Company, it's surfactants; with Arkema, it's polymers. [Collaborations] are a trend in R&D, and we have taken on this partnership model to leverage our capabilities with others—up and down the supply chain.” He added that by doing so, the total becomes greater than the sum of its individual parts. “We combine molecules so that 1 + 1 = 3. By collaborating, we can map out where consumer needs are, then tap into the technologies we need to create new building blocks to fill the gaps.”

In turn, this also increases speed to market. “One [partner] may have the technology while the other can reach the global market,” said Shafer, “and we have collaborations around the world.”

In January 2011, work began on finding ways to do just that, so with its olefin metathesis and market expertise, Elevance collaborated with XiMo AG, a company specialized on the development of another generation of metathesis catalysts. Together, they tested more than 40 catalysts using various natural oil feedstocks to evaluate efficiencies. They found their answer in molybdenum-based catalysts. Work developing these catalysts continues, and Elevance expects to make this technology a commercial reality soon, too.

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