Solvay's Epicerol process for manufacturing the chemical intermediate epichlorohydrin from glycerine won the Belgian company the 2007 Glycerine Innovation Award at the Annual Meeting and Expo of the American Oil Chemists' Society earlier this month.
The process employs a form of reverse technology - compared by Solvay to making an orange from orange juice - to transform glycerine derived from rapeseed oil into epichlorohydrin, whereas previous Solvay manufactured synthetic glycerine from epichlorohydrin.
In the pharmaceutical industry, epichlorohydrin is used in the chemical synthesis of complex molecules and as a base for synthesis of glycerol monochlorohydrin (1-chloro-2,3-propanediol), employed in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products such as cough mixtures.Other applications of epichlorohydrin include the production of epoxy resins for cars, boats and airplanes, as well as paper reinforcement and water purification products.
The award for the environmentally sustainable Epicerol process, which included a $5,000 (€3,684) honorarium, was presented to Solvay by the US Soap and Detergent Association and the National Biodiesel Board. The company pointed to the "major environmental advantages" of using the Epicerol technology, which include reducing chlorine residues by a factor of eight and water usage by 90 per cent.
Last month Solvay brought onstream the first industrial unit to implement the Epicerol technology, with initial nameplate capacity for 10 metric kilotons of epichlorohydrin per year. Thus was "easily expandable in response to market demand", Solvay added. The company announced only in late January 2006 that it was building the new epichlorohydrin plant at its site in Tavaux, France.
At the time Solvay noted that steadily increasing demand for epichlorohydrin was expected to surpass existing global production capacity by 2010. The company has a long-term contract for the supply of glycerine with French company Dieter Industrie, "capitalising on the fast growth of the biofuels industry and the large quantities of glycerine available at an appropriate price".
The current surplus of glycerine on the worldwide market is attributed to government incentives encouraging use of biodiesel fuels in the US and Europe, leading to closures of traditional glycerine manufacturing plants and the emergence of new plants using glycerine as biofuel. Glycerine is the main by-product of biodiesel production, with every 1,000 kg of biodiesel generating around 100 kg of glycerine.
As Solvay comments, the production of synthetic glycerine from epichlorohydrin was "the main reason for getting into [the epichlorohydrin] business in the first place". The market context has changed, though, it adds.
"The problem of energy resources has created new raw materials issues and the newly developing biodiesel industry is now generating large quantities of natural glycerine as a by-product," Solvay points out "This led us in 2005 to stop producing glycerine … At the same time, with soaring propylene prices, investment in the traditional production process has become difficult to justify."
The company is already planning further investment in a 100 kiloton-per-year epichlorohydrin unit in Thailand, expanding on its integrated site at Map Ta Phut. Production at the Thai facility is scheduled to begin in mid-2009.
Solvay has 22 pending patent applications covering the Epicerol process. The technology allows the direct synthesis of the intermediate dichloropropanol from glycerine and hydrochloric acid. A second step, dehydrochlorination, results in the production of epichlorohydrin. The industrialisation of the glycerine-based process was made possible by the creation of an entirely new class of catalysts, among other innovations, Solvay says.