Valuable collaboration produces a promising biobased route for acrylonitrile


Brightsite presents its latest innovations, research and projects during the annual ‘Meet our scientist’ event. An important part is the election of the poster with the best idea, with impact as the main criteria this year. Here, the researchers involved, Guido Hagenaars and Céline Fellay (from Brightsite partner Sitech) and Esther Montrée and Alejandro Varela (from AnQore), talk about their winning project: a study into biobased routes for acrylonitrile (ACN).

The project came about after AnQore approached Brightsite. “As a company, we are concerned with sustainability and see that things will have to change in the future. We must move away from fossil energy and raw materials to non-fossil alternatives. One of the options we want to explore is whether we can replace our current feedstock with biobased raw materials for the production of acrylonitrile, or ACN for short. We are already doing that on a small scale. Another, more drastic option is to change our processes. We asked Brightsite for help to explore some potential routes to produce ACN”, says Esther Montrée, sustainability engineer at AnQore.

Feasibility routes mapped out
Céline Fellay (program manager at Brightsite) and Guido Hagenaars (chemical engineer at Sitech) have taken up AnQore’s research request. “We looked at various routes and investigated whether they would be feasible on a large scale, or that, for certain reasons, there are red flags that stand in the way of that. The difficulty here was that there is a lot of open literature available, and it is sometimes difficult to see how good the claims made therein actually are. That is also our added value, we dive in and find out whether claims are well-founded or not”, Fellay explains. “We were able to quickly cross off some routes. We have examined four to five routes in detail and these can be divided into two main options to produce biobased ACN: via biobased propylene (such as methanol-to-olefin; MTO) and the current ammoxidation process or based on compounds derived from biomass that require new processes (for example glycerol and ‘lactic acid’ route). We examined the different routes and provided recommendations, including trade-offs with regard to the CO2footprint”, Hagenaars adds.

Follow-up study MTO
Of the routes examined, one was very positive; the route from methanol to olefins, such as propylene and ethylene. Brightsite and AnQore therefore decided to conduct a follow-up study for a deeper analysis of this pathway.

Alejandro Varela, scientist R&D Technology at AnQore

“This route is interesting because methanol is a promising base. There are many developments underway regarding green methanol production. Methanol is seen as an important platform molecule and energy carrier of the future”.

“This process is also a proven technology – Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 9 – that is already being implemented on a large scale with fossil methanol. Last but not least, propylene can be used directly in the existing process. There is no need to turn the process upside down, no investment and development work. What we still need to look at is the impact of impurities and variations in methanol quality”, Hagenaars states.

Meanwhile, the follow-up study has begun. “We investigate how realistic this route is, not only in financial terms, but also in terms of the availability of methanol. And we will look at companies that already use or plan to use biobased MTO”, says Fellay. “We will also conduct research into different types of methanol (green, blue, gray, brown) and what this means for the CO2 footprint. What is complicated is that the origin of methanol varies per supplier and possibly even in the same MTO factory”, explains Hagenaars.


Valuable collaboration
“We also thought that replacing the raw material propylene with a biobased variant would be the easiest. But claims of other routes also sounded promising. It’s nice that Brightsite helped us to see the Wood for the Trees with their expertise, including modeling. We delve into this MTO route with the follow-up study. We will also keep an eye on the other routes, which turned out reasonably well. The collaboration has been good, I think we complement each other well. We are therefore happy that we are doing the follow-up study together with Brightsite again,” Montrée emphasizes.

Céline Fellay, program manager Brightsite

“This is also a great way for us to collaborate with a factory owner at the Chemelot site. Such cooperation is good for both parties to get the ball rolling in areas that may seem far away at first glance. The fact that we are moving forward together actually says it all,”

Jury praises impact of ACN project
The jury, consisting of Emmo Meijer (Advisory Board Brightsite), Anna Wilbik (professor of Data Fusion and Intelligent Interaction), Richard van de Sanden (scientific director Eindhoven Institute for Renewable Energy Systems), Loek Radix (director Chemelot) and Paul Brandts (intelligence officer Brightsite), chose this project from 30 posters and praised the impact and scalability of this research with great relevance to making the Chemelot site more sustainable. The team received a check for 5,000 euros to put toward the project. Fellay: “We are very pleased with the award and we plan to use the money to visit a facility dedicated to the new pathway or go together to a relevant conference.”