Biomethanol in the Netherlands

Methanol, commonly produced from natural gas, is an interesting transport fuel, and a feedstock for products like plastics and paints. Natural gas feedstock contributes to almost three quarters of methanol’s production costs. This implies a major advantage for countries which produce crude oil at relatively low cost, and traditionally flare natural gas. For countries endowed with large natural gas reserves but hardly any gas infrastructure, methanol production makes a sound business case.

Logistically favourable location
Although methanol production would not appear to be competitive in the Netherlands, in the ‘80s AkzoNobel and DSM constructed a methanol production plant (‘Methanor’) in Delfzijl (in the Groningen province). It produced methanol from natural gas and achieved at selling it profitably (although sometimes narrowly so). Its logistically favourable location evened out with their competitor’s cheap feedstock, as these had to ship the product from remote areas, using relatively small ships. But when competitors started to build ships for transport of some hundreds of thousands of tons, this advantage eroded. Methanol prices collapsed where such ships harboured. A difficult market for Methanor.

Paul Hamm, being employed by DSM, then was one of Methanor’s directors. As a chemical student, he wrote a term paper on methanol technology, and he knew the plant inside out. Moreover his father, then heading DSM’s New Development department, had constructed the factory. By 2000, DSM wanted to end its participation. Paul Hamm: ‘We just about made a small profit. Some made a huge profit on methanol, but others went bust.’

New process
Eventually, Methanor could not cope any longer because of high European natural gas prices, and it was closed down in 2006. Sieb Doorn, who once worked at Methanor as a technological engineer, thought up a new process, which would leave most of the plant unaltered. Paul Hamm and Sieb Doorn agreed that Methanor would have to employ another feedstock in order to survive. Synthesis gas was substituted for natural gas. This ‘syngas’ is more expensive that natural gas, but it could be produced biobased. Sieb Doorn developed a process for syngas production from glycerol, a side product of biodiesel production, and for biomethanol synthesis from syngas. This methanol is biobased, carrying a premium price, and moreover it is a second generation product, being produced from a residue.

In 2006, AkzoNobel and DSM issued a tender for takeover of the factory. In operation, it would be worth some € 160 million. Russian companies were among the bidders, on the basis of their Siberian ‘stranded gas’. Iranian parties were interested, too. In vain, Paul Hamm called for a delay in the bidding process in order to rescue methanol production for the Netherlands. Then he decided to invest in it personally, and succeeded in securing the cooperation of Ad van Wijk’s Econcern, Japanese Teijin who had a Delfzijl branch producing Twaron (taken over from AkzoNobel), and NOM, the development agency for the Northern Dutch provinces. This consortium saw business opportunities as well as sustainability gains. And Paul Hamm won the bidding, much to the joy of the former owners.

Very little manpower
The new owners profited from the strength of the methanol market at that time, even though all employees had left the factory. Nevertheless, Sieb Doorn succeeded in a six days’ start-up, a process which otherwise would take a month. Running on very little manpower, they operated the facility, and had a turnover sufficiently high to finance a pilot plant for their new process, patented by Paul and Sieb. Being renamed BioMCN, the company contracted Rob Voncken as the new CEO in 2007; he completed the reorganisation and the development of the new process. All went according to schedule; in 2008 the glycerol process went into operation, and construction started for the new commercial plant. Then, in 2009, Econcern went broke, which almost killed BioMCN. But investment company Waterland acquired a majority share, the Netherland’s first and Europe’s biggest bioproduction plant could go on. Plans have been developed to enlarge existing facilities and build a second plant, but this is dependent upon a European subsidy, and developments in European sustainable energy legislation.

‘We feel completely at home’, says Rob Voncken, BioMCN’s present CEO. ‘The location is excellent, in particular the large harbour for biomass imports and finished product exports. Energy Valley and Groningen province are very supportive, and NOM actively participates in our strategy development. They are among those who inspired us to develop of our ‘Wood Spirit’ project – biomethanol production from waste wood – and are supportive in many ways. In short, the Northern provinces have a strong team for support to companies like BioMCN.’

Largest in the world
In fact, BioBCN is the largest biobased factory in the world. ‘And we will remain that for some time to come if our Wood Spirit project is realised’, says Rob Voncken. Probably, Europe will decide on that in 2012.

‘In green chemistry there are two production concepts’, says Rob Voncken, ‘fermentation and gasification. We employ the second concept in our biomethanol production. Fermentation is excellent for production of very complex chemicals. But we follow the other course. Syngas from waste wood and other waste products is a good feedstock for production of many green building blocks, not just biomethanol but also bioethanol and biobutanol. Bioethanol from sugar fermentation (sugar beet and sugar cane) is not cheaper than bioethanol from syngas, which holds even more for processing straw and other waste materials to second generation biochemicals. Moreover, many second generation fermentation projects are still in their infancy. Our synthesis route concept is rock solid. Let us put it this way: ‘there is no holy grail’; one’s choice of process depends on many factors: the envisaged products, technological skills, and feedstock availability and costs. Like in driving a car: well to wheel performance is decisive, whether your car is powered by petrol, methanol or electricity.’

Long term view
‘We also take a long term view’, says Rob Voncken, ‘even a very long term view. We research biomethanol production from carbon dioxide and water, powered by sunlight. We participate in Wageningen UR’s BioSolar project, and investigate CCR (carbon capture and reuse). By 2020 we hope to see the first results.’

Courtesy NOM, development agency for the Dutch Northern provinces

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