Honors Gallery

2011 Propylene glycol from renewable sources Far West

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2011

Award Type:

Region: Far West

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)

Approximately 2 to 2.5 billion pounds of petroleum are consumed each year to meet the current U.S. demand for propylene glycol (PG), which is used to manufacture chemicals needed to produce industrial and consumer products that can be found in every household in America. PG has historically only been produced using this nonrenewable resource. Now the Propylene Glycol from Renewable Sources (PGRS) process developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) offers a commercially proven, cost-effective way to make PGRS, and a full-scale production facility was constructed in 2009 to bring it to market in 2010.

Development of the process began nearly a decade ago with a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between PNNL and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). The collaboration, which was intended to explore a possible process to convert sorbitol to propylene glycol and ethylene glycol, resulted in scientists at PNNL developing a new set of catalysts to screen for such a process. In doing so, they discovered they were able to convert glycerol to PG—an exciting result that would enable production of PG entirely from renewable sources. Although NCGA exercised its option rights and executed a license for the process, it became clear that NCGA was not well-suited to bring products to market and that a commercial partner was needed.

One of the PNNL scientists had an existing relationship with Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) and introduced the chemical giant to the collaboration, with ADM agreeing to get involved. After a large-scale collaborative effort to optimize the catalyst, PNNL technology transfer staff reached an agreement with NCGA to regain rights to the intellectual property they had licensed, so that work with ADM could continue toward a more commercially promising end. Around this same time, direct funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy was obtained to accelerate the research with an intensified focus on technology transfer and commercialization.

After successfully regaining license rights from NCGA, PNNL entered into another CRADA with ADM in 2006 to explore viable ways to bring the process to market. During that same year, ADM licensed the process from Battelle, which operates PNNL for the DOE. The company constructed and operated a pilot plant in 2009, and recently completed construction of a full-scale production facility for the sole purpose of commercially producing PGRS. The manufacturing facility is expected to achieve full operational status in 2011.