Green glycidol pilot plant in the UK

Article by Amanda Doyle

Queen's University Belfast spin-out company Green Lizard Technologies (GLT), together with partners Dixie Chemicals and Felda Global Ventures, will use dimethyl carbonate and unpurified waste glycerol for environmentally friendly production of glycidol. The Wilton Centre in Teesside  has been chosen as the site for the pilot plant.  

Glycidol, also known as epoxy propanol (EP), is used in the production of a range of products such as detergents, industrial paints and coatings, and healthcare products. EP is currently manufactured mainly in Japan, with a small amount produced in the US. The new plant at the Wilton Centre, dubbed the Green Epoxy Solutions (GES) plant, will be Europe’s first production plant for EP.

There are two methods traditionally used for producing EP – epoxidation of allyl alcohol with hydrogen peroxide, or the reaction of epichlorohydrin with a caustic agent. Allyl alcohol is extremely toxic, and epichlorohydrin is made from hydrocarbon feedstocks such as propylene. These methods create toxic biproducts such as hydrochloric acid and thus expensive purification steps are required to stop the acid residues from entering the environment.

Clean ingredients

Carbon dioxide and methanol can be combined to produce dimethyl carbonate (DMC), which is used in the clean production of EP. Martin Atkins, CEO of GLT and formerly working with BP, developed DMC as a separate project in partnership with Yashentech in China and Saturn Methanol in the US. Diesel soot causes a variety of health and climate problems worldwide, but adding DMC to diesel can eliminate diesel soot particles without the need to modify a diesel engine.

DMC diesel engines have already been tested in China, and the province of Henan has switched all of its construction industry diesel engines, such as trains, delivery vans, and JCBs, over to the DMC fuel. The development of DMC had the added bonus of being a clean reagent in the production of EP.

Biodiesel is a sustainable alternative to petrol or diesel and is made from natural vegetable oils and fats. However, it creates glycerol as a waste product which can require additional purification. As the demand for biodiesel has increased, there is also an increasing surplus of waste glycerol. GLT does not need to purify the waste glycerol before it is combined with DMC and there are no waste acids produced.

Fast track process

GLT developed a fast track process that goes from bench scale to commercial operation in record time. “This particular process was still at a 5 g scale in the labs here in Queen’s less than two years ago and now we’re up at full demonstration,” said Atkins.

There has already been a lot of interest in the EP produced by GLT, particularly as it is much cheaper than before. “EP is a very old molecule, but it’s now made by a completely green route and it’s a tenth of the production price that it was originally,” said Atkins. “So we’re actually finding that we’re getting a lot more interest and a lot more partners coming to us.”

The GES plant will produce 10,000 t of EP with the capability of increasing to 30,000 t. If the pilot plant is successful, GLT and its development partners will invest around £17m (US$ 25m) for a full-scale production plant, which could open as early as 2021.

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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