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Germany: Biomass Processing Covestro Introduces Method to Produce Plant-Based Aniline

| Editor: Alexander Stark

Covestro has announced a research breakthrough for the use of plant-based raw materials in plastics production: aniline, an important basic chemical, can now be derived from biomass, the company claims.

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Production of bio-based aniline: The process works on a small scale. Project manager Dr. Gernot Jäger (center) is working with his team (Dr. Swantje Behnken, left, Dr. Wolf Kloeckner, right) to test it in larger-scale facilities.
Production of bio-based aniline: The process works on a small scale. Project manager Dr. Gernot Jäger (center) is working with his team (Dr. Swantje Behnken, left, Dr. Wolf Kloeckner, right) to test it in larger-scale facilities.
(Source: Covestro AG)

Leverkusen/Germany — Until now, only fossil raw materials had been used for the production of aniline, which plays an important role in the chemical industry and is used as starting material for numerous products. The materials manufacturer achieved a new method in collaboration with partners on the development of a completely new process, initially in the laboratory.

Now, the company plans to further develop the new 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 five million metric tons of aniline are produced annually worldwide; the total volume has been increasing by an average of about five percent every year. Covestro has a production capacity of about one million metric tons of aniline, which it requires 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,” said Covestro 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. With this, we are pursuing our vision of making the world a brighter place.”

“The process currently under development uses renewable raw materials and produces aniline with a much better CO2 footprint than that manufactured with standard technology,” said Covestro project manager Dr. Gernot Jäger. “This also enables our customers to markedly improve the CO2 footprint of their aniline-based products.” And the reactions would take place under milder conditions. The ecological aspects of the process are also being thoroughly evaluated by external institutes.

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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 newly developed 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 one hundred percent of the carbon in the aniline comes from renewable raw materials,” explained Jäger.

The manufacturer is working with the University of Stuttgart, the CAT Catalytic Center at RWTH Aachen University, and Bayer AG to further develop the process. “This interdisciplinary, motivated team combines all the needed expertise at a very high level and is the basis for continued success,” said Jäger. The long-term research project will receive funding for a period of two and a half years through the FNR (Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe e.V.), a project agency of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

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