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Release Date: 11/14/2023

By: Låkril Technologies

Corn and Sustainability

Consumers increasingly look for environmentally sustainable solutions. Corn may be the answer. Låkril Technologies has found a way to leverage corn-based sugars to create sustainable, low CO2 emission chemicals. We are scaling catalytic dehydration technology to convert corn-derived lactic acid and ethanol to sustainably produced bio-acrylics at cost-parity to traditional petrochemical routes.

The Feedstock: Making Lactic Acid

The US produces 14 billion bushels of corn annually with most of that production concentrated in the Midwest, where population density is low and farm productivity high. Corn, as biomass, is trucked to regional milling facilities located near the farm. Ethanol, corn syrup, and corn starch are among the products made at these facilities. At certain milling facilities, corn-derived sugars are collected and used as feedstock for fermentation reactors. Lactic acid is a product of that fermentation.

Today 250 thousand metric tons of lactic acid is produced in the US via fermentation from corn-derived sugars.  In the US, a large, integrated facility in Blair, NE produces lactic acid and lactide for Cargill and Corbion, and a smaller 30 metric ton facility near Milwaukee, WI is operated by Galactic.  ADM is constructing a plant in Decatur, IL that will be online in 2025, increasing US production by 70% in that time.

The Product Market: Acrylics Industry

The paint on your wall, coatings on your floor, and diapers keeping kids dry are all acrylics polymers. Today, 6.8 million metric tons of acrylic acid and acrylate derivatives are produced globally each year as chemical intermediates. This $11 billion industry growing at a 3-4% annually is the basis for superabsorbent polymers, latex paints, many industrial coatings systems, and numerous other uses. Today acrylics are produced entirely from petroleum with a value chain that runs through oil refining. This process creates significant CO2 emissions – about 5.8 kg CO2 / kg acrylic acid.

The Låkril Approach and Where We Are Today

At Låkril, our technology lets us tie together the agricultural and chemical industries and bring sustainability to an industry we need for daily life. We produce bio-based acrylics from lactic acid with at least an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions. Låkril’s goal is to provide the acrylics industry with a sustainable, cost-competitive approach to producing bio-based acrylics, which would then be dropped into the downstream users’ existing formulations.

Our catalytic technology would require about 2.7 million bushels of corn per year for each 40 thousand metric tons typically sized plant.

While we discovered an outstanding catalyst innovation which was recognized at Consider Corn Challenge III, additional work is required to get the Låkril Amber Process to full scale (picture 1). Along with other R&D thrusts, we have been working with the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan funding to develop robust distillation technology to meet required product specification and decrease cost when deployed at scale.

As in ethanol plants, design of the distillation towers significantly impacts the purity of the final acrylic acid product and commercialization. Over the course of the year, we have determined key thermodynamic information and scaled distillation in our Chicago R&D facility through several scales of batch distillation using simulated feeds to final column. We are currently moving to continuous distillation at larger scale in preparation for continuous production. Through this experimental investigation and further engineering simulations, we will determine best mode of operation and design of the Låkril Amber Process.

Farm Resilience and Rural High Paying Jobs

Our technology will provide resilience for farm families across Midwest America through new industrial uses for the US’ largest crop. Over 90 plants at 40 thousand metric ton size would be needed to replace the acrylics produced on the Texas gulf coast today to serve the North American market. Most of these plants would be located in the Upper Midwest in locations like Michigan. Låkril will continue to develop the process and scale the catalyst such that in 2025 we are offering process licenses and catalysts sales to identified customer segments. These plants would significantly enhance the market and value proposition for corn produced in Michigan.

Here at Låkril Technologies we are excited to bring a sustainable supply of acrylic acid and acrylates to today’s market. The support we have received from Michigan Corn and other organizations not only aids our efforts at Låkril but will also provide opportunity and diversification for the agriculture industry, thus supporting rural America and making our efforts all the more worthwhile.