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Corporate research

Beyond oil derivatives

Braskem expands markets with a polymer made from ethanol and invests in routes to biotechnology

ANDRÉ CAVALHEIROFrom left to right, Patrick Teyssonneyre, Marcelo Farah and Mauro Oviedo, in the plant in Triunfo (RS)ANDRÉ CAVALHEIRO

Brazilian petrochemical company, Braskem, sixth in the world ranking in the sector,  produces more than 16 million tons of intermediary chemicals and thermoplastic resins, like polyethylene, polypropylene and PVC annually. It leads the production of the so-called green polyethylene, made from sugar cane ethanol, which is the result of the research and technological development work of researchers from the polymer area. Just three years ago it was in 11th place. The rapid rise is mainly due to the purchase of Brazilian company Quattor, the polypropylene division of North American petrochemical company Sunoco, in Philadelphia in March 2010, which opened up operations outside Brazil, and four polymerization plants from Dow Chemical last year, two in the United States and two in Germany.

This result was also helped by the inauguration of a sugar cane ethanol polymer plant in September 2010, with capacity to produce 200,000 tons a year, in the petrochemical complex of Triunfo (RS), where the petrochemical company is located. On its own, it accounted for 28% of the world market for biopolymers produced in 2010, with a total of 724,500 tons, according to European Bioplastics, a European association that represents the manufacturers, transformers and users of bioplastics and biodegradable polymers. The projection is for a market with lots of room for growth. The European association estimates that in 2015 production will reach 1.7 million tons.

In Brazil, green polyethylene is used, for example, by Danone in yoghurt packaging, by Faber Castell for packaging its pencils and by Natura in its fennel product line. Braskem sells the raw polymer to its customers, which transform the resin into packaging for cosmetics, sun-block, toys, supermarket bags and other applications. Outside Brazil, trade agreements for the use of the sugar cane polymer have expanded, an example, being the partnership signed at the beginning of June with German group, Tecnaro, a company that has developed a type of thermoplastic wood called Arboform to give the resin other uses.

The possibility of a green polymer once more being produced by the petrochemical company, whose main shareholders are the Odebrecht Group and Petrobras, rose in 2004, but it was only in 2006 when the company hired a foreign consultancy company to map out the global market that the project took shape. “In talking with customers we saw that the issue of sustainability was gaining in importance in the consumer market,” says Patrick Teyssonneyre, the director for innovation and technology in polymers, 35 years old and with Braskem for the last 12. To do its prospecting work the company has a team of 70 people, comprising the sales, marketing, market development and application engineering areas, which are always in the field consulting customers and end users on needs and trends in the area.

LÉO RAMOSResearchers in the LNBio biotechnology laboratory in CampinasLÉO RAMOS

The best ideas are converted into projects, the objective of which may be anything from a new product or technology to a new service and application for an already existing product. “We look out for universities in the world that are the most prominent in the subjects on the agenda in our projects and we propose working together,” says Teyssonneyre, a materials engineer, with a degree from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). His first contact with Braskem was during an internship he did when he was still studying at university. “I began as a product development engineer and then started liking laboratory work,” says the director, who did an MBA in management at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

Among the company’s partner institutions are the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and Clemson, Massachusetts and Stanford Universities in the United States. With Stanford, for example, Braskem has signed a contract to develop a polypropylene resin for the fiber cement segment, which performed extremely well compared with the alternatives existing in the market. In May, the company filed a patent on the technology it has developed and the commercial launch of the product is planned for October this year.

Braskem has 35 industrial plants in Brazil, the United States and Germany, and 2 research centers dedicated to petrochemicals, 1 in Triunfo with 180 researchers and another in Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, with 40 researchers. It also has a biotechnology laboratory and fermentation laboratory, based in the National Biosciences Laboratory (LNBio), in Campinas that has 25 researchers. These laboratories are involved with the research and development of renewable technologies and also have a renewable processes team. The team of researchers includes chemical engineers, materials engineers, chemists and more recently biologists, biochemists and bioinformatics experts. Around 40% have an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree or a PhD and the rest are lab technicians. “The three laboratories complement each other and operate in an integrated way,” says Teyssonneyre. In 2011, Braskem invested R$ 155 million in research and had net revenues of R$ 33.2 billion, an increase of 19% over the previous year.

LÉO RAMOSResearch at LNBioLÉO RAMOS

“In addition to the qualifications of its team members, one of Braskem’s differentials in product development is its closeness to the customer and to different Brazilian and international research centers,,” says Mauro Alfredo Soto Oviedo, 41, a researcher in the polymers area in Triunfo, with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Concepción, in Chile, a master’s degree in industrial biotechnology from the University of São Paulo (USP) and a PhD in chemistry from Unicamp, in addition to a course in chemistry at Birmingham University in England, where he studied degradation mechanisms in polymeric materials. He did post-doctoral studies in the nanotechnology of polymers also at Unicamp. All his postgraduate studies, including his course in England, were funded by FAPESP.

The policy of the petrochemical company is to guarantee that funds are well invested. “We know there’s a risk with innovation and that not all projects are going to succeed, which is why we try and identify those that are not promising in the initial stages,” says Teyssonneyre. At each stage of the project there is a detailed analysis of both the technical and commercial risks to assess its degree of feasibility. Oviedo, for example, was invited to work at Braskem in June 2006 as a member of a group created to undertake research in the nanotechnology area for the class of polyolefins, to which polyethylene and polypropylene belong. “Development of the technology progressed on a pilot scale, but the market for these types of special polyolefin did not grow as predicted. As a result, the funds that had been earmarked for this line of research were allocated to more priority projects,” says Oviedo. While it waits for the right moment to produce this technology, the group that has been involved with the project for three years has been reallocated to other areas. “Today, I work in the science of polymers area.” The team has 18 researchers, including chemists, pharmacists and biochemists, all with master’s degrees or PhDs.

Marcelo Farah, 37, a materials engineering graduate from the State University of Ponta Grossa (UEPG), in Paraná, with a master’s degree and a PhD in materials science and engineering from UFSCar, also has a grant from FAPESP and has been part of this group since 2005. “We work with different subjects and a rapid response time to meet needs and strategies that are pretty different from those required at university,” says Farah. One of the group’s tasks is to act as the link with academia. “We look for research opportunities that have results that interest us so that the technology can be incorporated into our day-to-day activities.”

LÉO RAMOSMaria Carolina Grassi dedicates her time to selecting strong and competitive microorganismsLÉO RAMOS

Braskem does not set aside a fixed percentage for research. The annual figure varies by virtue of the projects that are current. For example, R$ 500 million was allocated for setting up the sugar cane ethanol polyethylene plant. Although green polymer is not biodegradable, since its chemical structure is identical to that of plastic made from oil, which gives the resin the same physical and mechanical properties, it has attracted  attention from the market because it comes from a renewable source.

Renewable technologies
The renewable technologies research structure, which has been at the LNBio since September 2010, grew out of a partnership between Braskem and Unicamp’s Genomic and Expression Laboratory in 2007, via a project named Green routes to propene (see Pesquisa FAPESP 177), which was coordinated by Professor Gonçalo Guimarães Pereira, who was funded by FAPESP in its Partnership for Technological Innovation Program (Pite). The six postgraduate students who initially took part in the project were hired by Braskem. “My PhD in genetics and molecular biology, which I’m finalizing, started at Unicamp within this project,” says researcher Maria Carolina Grassi, 27, with an undergraduate degree in biology from the same university and one of those hired.

“The renewable process team monitors everything the biotechnology researchers develop on a microscopic scale, and evaluates and optimizes the main aspects of the transformation on an industrial scale,” says Maria Ignez Broglio, 47, a chemical engineer with an undergraduate degree from Unicamp, where she also did her master’s degree, who coordinates one of the research lines that focuses on catalysis. The task of the team of Maria Ignez, who worked for 20 years in the basic chemical industry and has been at Braskem since 2010, is to develop an innovative route to the production of monomers, which will be used in the production of green plastics.

068-071_Brasken_197The biotechnology laboratory develops metabolic ways for producing chemical compounds of interest. “We’re looking for microorganisms that are strong, and whose final chemical compound is high yielding and highly productive, like those used in the industrial production of ethanol and lactic acid,” says Maria Carolina.

Maria Ignez coordinates a research line, whose objective is to find green molecules through the use of renewable carbon sources and new catalysts more quickly (responsible for speeding up chemical processes). She cites the example of sugar cane alcohol that was transformed into a green monomer by acidic catalysis. In this method, the acidic catalyst dehydrates the ethanol and transforms it into ethylene, a process with an extremely high yield. “The advantage of this process is that it’s not necessary to alter the installations used in the previous polymerization stage of the molecule obtained by catalysis,” she says. To produce green polyethylene, for example, Braskem invested in the first stage, called reactional, and not in purification. The objective of the strategy is to have alternative routes for producing new green molecules for the market and thus gain time for the development of biotechnologically modified microorganisms.

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