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Versalis looking for growth, pushing ahead on bio-portfolio
Posted on December 2nd, 2016 by Nigel Davis in Chemicals Industry News and Analysis
The “better products” drive has taken on new meaning at Italy-headquartered Versalis. Buoyed by positive cash flows and profits, the company, now once again part of energy giant ENI, is pushing ahead with geographical expansion alongside the development of a robust bio-based production platform.
Versalis is not all about bio but a new, complex interlinked feedstock and product platform is in the process of being created. Volumes of bio-based chemical product pre-cursors are in production. The aim is to ramp up theses feedstock volumes and to continue to develop the bio-products portfolio.
Having produced a profit lasts year of €313m, after earlier heavy losses, the company is confident about 2016.
“The first half of the year was in-line with 2015,” CEO Daniele Ferrari told ICIS on the sidelines of the European Petrochemical Association meeting in Budapest earlier this month.
The second half was probably not going to be as strong, he added, although Versalis is expecting a positive free cash flow in 2016 for the first time in many years.
Ferrari stressed that the Versalis strategy had always been targeted at replacing existing products with ones that perform better. Work then begins on the feedstock. This is where the bio-approach comes in.
The first pounds of synthetic rubber have been produced from bio-butadiene made with partner Genomatica, for instance, and polymerised at a research centre in Ravenna, Italy.
The “end to end” bio-butadiene process combines traditional chemistry and chemical engineering with a new fermentation process to turn sugars into bio-polybutadiene. A processing package could be available for development with partners by the end of the year.
A flagship project for Versalis is Matrica in Sardinia which has been established with partner Novamont to turn locally grown biomass (a type of thistle) into intermediates for bio-plastics, bio-lubricants, home and personal care products, plant protection and additives for the rubber and plastics industries.
The aim is to use locally grown biomass in an agro-industrial complex. There have been two harvests of the locally grown thistle. A bio-refinery at the site of an old cracker complex, currently uses vegetable oil from suppliers in the Mediterranean to produce mono- and di-carboxylic acids and esters.
Versalis and Novamont use proprietary technology in the 35,000 tonne/year bio-reactor which does not use ozone in the vegetable oil oxidative cleavage reaction leading to a process with a low environmental impact.
A plant producing rubber and polymer additives is integrated with this bio-monomers plant while an esters plant is more flexible and independent.
“We are very encouraged about Matrica,” Ferrari said. The monomers plant is running. When fully operational 50% of its output, mainly azelaic acid, would be destined for direct sale to customers and the remainder for use downstream.
Capacity utilisation of a total of 70,000 tonnes/year at the site currently is low but Versalis says that “fine tuning” is required in parallel with promotion and approvals for products that are new to the market.
“It’s a completely different way of thinking,” Ferrari said, describing the opportunities that exist for rubber, agro and other chemicals that can be produced from the complex. The aim is to reach full capacity but beyond that there could be scope for expansion, he added.
At Porto Marghera on the Venice lagoon, Versalis has almost completed engineering for a project for the metathesis of natural oils with butene-1. The process should allow the extraction of complex molecules from vegetable oils.
Versalis has looked at ethylene as a co-feedstock to target, it says, even higher added value products. A final investment decision will be based on the market potential for a wide range of products with applications from personal care and cleaners to bio lubricants and oilfield chemicals.
Versalis is also ready to build a pilot plant for processing the biomass from guayule, a crop which the company is growing now in southern Italy and wants to grow in Sicily.
Rubber, latex and sugars can be extracted from the plant. It produces a hypoallergenic latex that has potential in a number of applications. It could be an important feedstock for rubber compounds for greener tyres. Pirelli produced and road tested the first tyre made using guayule natural rubber late last year.
Moving ahead with the bio-platform is vitally important for Versalis which this year was re-integrated into Italy’s energy giant Eni.
Versalis has been lucky in that it has been able to re-start the previously closed Porto Marghera cracker – to help cover initially the ethylene shortage for Shell in 2015 after the latter’s cracker at Moerdijk in the Netherlands suffered an extended outage.
Versalis is likely to have new ethylene sale agreements for the cracker and next year will put the plant into a scheduled maintenance turnaround. It says that Porto Marghera remains of central importance to its production network ensuring feedstock to production units in Ferrara, Mantua and Ravenna in Italy.
Moving ahead with the bio-platform investments will be vitally important for the company, however, as production sites in Italy switch further from traditional chemistry to bio. Meanwhile, Ferrari stressed it had become fundamentally important for the company to have a strong and recognised presence in different parts of the world.
He pointed to the Lotte Chemical joint venture and the development of a 250,000 tonne/year elastomers production plant in Yeosu in South Korea aimed at the tyre, automotive and adhesives sectors. The plant is planned to start up in 2017.
Versalis has licensed elastomers technologies to the Mesnac group in China to help supplement its green tyre portfolio, Ferrari said. And two trading companies have been established in Asia – in China and India.
A commercial agreement was signed last year for Versalis to distribute Reliance elastomers produced in India using Versalis technology.
In rubber particularly, the company is looking to develop new specialty grades and to upgrade the portfolio while it pursues internationalisation in Asia and the Americas.
“The restructuring is over,” Ferrari said in Budapest. “[Now] it is about restoring growth and securing the financial position.”
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