Funded by a $1.5 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the three-year project will determine if energy crops planted for cellulosic ethanol could simultaneously produce methacrylate monomers, a key raw material used in the manufacture of many products including paint and coatings, building materials, and acrylic sheet and resins. The economics are attractive. More than 1.5 billion pounds of methacrylate monomers are produced annually in the United States, a market worth $780 million.
Though in its early stages, the science looks promising. Molecular biologists and biochemistry experts at Ceres say that some plants naturally produce compounds similar to methacrylate monomers, but do not necessarily accumulate them in extractable forms or quantities. They believe it may be feasible to alter the way plants produce these compounds so that they can be extracted from the dried stalks, stems and leaves before these are fed into biorefineries producing ethanol from cellulose. Cellulosic ethanol derives its energy from the whole plant rather than just the grain, as in corn-based ethanol.
“There is a readymade market for plant-based methacrylate sources, but the final product will still need to be up to industry specifications,” says Tim Donnelly, global technology director for Rohm and Haas Company’s Primary Materials business. As one of the world’s leading producers of acrylate and methacrylate monomers, Rohm and Haas Company is bringing its market knowledge and technical expertise to the project. It will assist in developing extraction and isolation technology as well as evaluating the end products.