MATRIC has de-icing solution
MATRIC is preparing to pilot a new process
By Eric Eyre
December 3, 2010
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A South Charleston-based research firm is playing a pivotal role in the development of a new product expected to be used primarily to melt ice on airport runways.
The Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center is renovating a pilot plant that Dow Chemical Co. vacated in December 2009. The research institute hopes to start making small quantities of purified succinic acid -- about 50 pounds a week -- at the chemical testing facility in early January.
MATRIC recently signed a $4.5 million contract with BioAmber, a Delaware-based renewable chemical company that plans to start building an $80 million succinic acid manufacturing facility in North America sometime next year. MATRIC's technology and chemical processes will be incorporated into BioAmber's plant.
The de-icer is more environmentally friendly and less corrosive than similar products on the market. The chemical also won't corrode aircraft landing gear and brake systems.
"We're converting the raw material to a succinic acid, processing it and crystallizing it into a solid," said William Etzkorn, senior chemical engineer with MATRIC. "It's fun to be working on something new, especially a 'green' technology."
MATRIC has been lending its engineering and chemical process expertise to BioAmber since 2008. MATRIC's succinic acid purification method is significantly less costly than existing processes.
"It's better technology all around," said Jean-Francois Huc, BioAmber's CEO who works out of the company's office in Montreal, Canada. "It's much less expensive to build. It's uses a lot less electricity, and it's more simple to operate."
MATRIC will produce succinic acid from a glucose solution or "fermentation broth." The dark green liquid arrives in barrels at MATRIC's South Charleston labs, where technicians will remove impurities and convert the solution into crystallized succinic acid. Researchers likened the process to isolating sugar from molasses.
"It's being derived from renewable materials rather than from petroleum," said Duane Dombek, MATRIC's director of process and product research and development. "The fermentation process actually consumes carbon dioxide."
MATRIC also doesn't add any special chemicals during production.
"It's all 'green' materials," Etzkorn said.
The renovated South Charleston pilot plant will allow MATRIC to produce larger quantities of the de-icer. The research firm is spending more than $500,000 for new equipment being installed at the testing facility. Last week, workers were fitting pipes and rewiring the pilot plant.
"It's just a larger version of what we have in the laboratory," Etzkorn said. "BioAmber's customers can come in and see the actual working process. We're able to go from raw material to final product."
Succinic acid also can be used to make plastics and polymers, fuel and food additives, clothing fibers and other products.
"It's a versatile, strong material," Dombek said.
The non-toxic crystallized material would be converted to "succinate salt" and dissolved in water before being sprayed on airport runways. The product also could be used on highways.
The chemical pilot plant is located at the West Virginia Education Research and Technology Park -- formerly known as the Dow Tech Park. The state plans to take over 258 acres at the research park on Dec. 15.
MATRIC -- now housed in Building 740 at the site -- hopes to move into Building 770, which is attached to the pilot plant being used to make the de-icer.
MATRIC has about 150 employees, many of whom formerly worked as scientists and engineers for Union Carbide and Dow.
"They've delivered tremendous value to us," Huc said of MATRIC's research team and engineers. "They really understand what the final goal is: to get a product commercialized and to the market. MATRIC has a great role to play in the advancement of renewable chemistry."
West Virginia is not in the running as a site for BioAmber's $80 million manufacturing plant. BioAmber -- formerly known as DNP Green Technology -- plans to build the facility in Canada or one of three Midwestern states. The plant will use corn as a feedstock.
Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.