Covestro turns to nature to divert aniline production away from fossil feedstocks

Article by Adam Duckett

The pilot plant in Leverkusen has started producing bio-based aniline

A PROCESS that uses genetically modified microorganisms to make a chemical used in insulating foam has started operating in Germany, opening the door to fossil-free production.

The plastics company Covestro has begun operating the bio-based aniline pilot plant at its manufacturing site in Leverkusen. The fermentation process involves feeding sugars extracted from plants to microorganisms which convert them into an intermediate chemical. This is then converted to aniline by chemical catalysis.

Aniline is used as an intermediate chemical in the manufacture of a wide variety of chemical products including dyes, agricultural chemicals, and the polyurethane foams that help insulate houses and refrigerators. Around six million tonnes of aniline is manufactured each year, with Covestro responsible for around one-sixth of global production.

Covestro’s conventional production route relies on petrochemical feedstocks. This involves reacting benzene with nitric acid to produce nitrobenzene, which is then reacted with hydrogen to produce aniline. The new bio-based route uses milder reaction conditions and reduces the use of these highly hazardous chemicals.

The company says it has made a seven-figure investment in the pilot plant, which will be used for further testing ahead of transfer to industrial scale.

Thorsten Dreier, CTO of Covestro, said: “Until now, aniline has been produced from fossil raw materials such as petroleum, which releases CO2 and fuels climate change. With our new process, we are contributing to building up a circular, bio-based economy, and I am very proud that we have now succeeded in making the jump to the next technological level.”

Covestro first announced it was developing a bio-based route to aniline in 2017. Partners on the project include RWTH Aachen and the University of Stuttgart.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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