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06. February 2005

Degussa and Headwaters establish joint venture

On 28 Sep 2004, Degussa AG, Düsseldorf, Germany, and Headwaters, Inc., South Jordan, Utah, USA, signed an agreement to establish a 50:50 joint venture to develop and commercialise a direct synthesis process for hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). The partnership aims to invest in mega facilities to produce low-cost hydrogen peroxide for chemical intermediates. High-volume producers will be able to use the H2O2 from these facilities to produce intermediates such as propylene oxide (PO).

The “Degussa Headwaters” joint venture, which plans to complete process development by 2007, will be responsible for commercialisation, and will build and operate manufacturing facilities. The first plant could be built in 2008. Shawn Abrams, Head of Degussa’s Active Oxygen’s business line, and Craig Hickman, President of Headwaters’ Technology Innovation Group, have a common vision: “Combining our activities in this joint venture will enable us to launch the process far sooner.” They stress that “Degussa Headwaters” is already well advanced in the development of direct synthesis of hydrogen peroxide.

Both companies have been working independently on direct synthesis for a number of years. Degussa’s contribution to the joint venture includes its extensive expertise as one of the world’s largest hydrogen peroxide producers with present capacity of 550,000 metric tons per year. Headwaters is an industry leader in nanocatalysis, so the partnership will be able to capitalise on its strong knowledge of catalysis for direct synthesis reactions. Its proprietary technology includes the NxCat nanocatalyst, a heterogeneous precious metal catalyst with high selectivity, high productivity and stability. The new process is to be tested and optimised for bulk production in the pilot plant at Degussa’s site in Hanau-Wolfgang, Germany.

The new direct synthesis method, which uses a catalyst to react hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) to form only hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), is to be scaled up for industrial use. Degussa has been producing hydrogen peroxide for many years using a proprietary anthraquinone process. The aqueous H2O2 generated by this process is mainly used to bleach paper and pulp. The new direct synthesis H2O2 is not seen as an alternative for this sector. It gives hydrogen peroxide dissolved in low concentrations of methanol, which can be used directly in the production of PO. Compared with the anthraquinone method, direct synthesis has enormous advantages for the PO process.

The companies are convinced that the direct synthesis route to H2O2 developed by the Degussa Headwaters joint venture, combined with the Degussa/Uhde technology for propylene oxide, will greatly reduce the cost of producing propylene oxide in the future. In 2001 Degussa and what is now Uhde GmbH, Dortmund, Germany, agreed to collaborate on the development of a new production process for propylene oxide. This method produces propylene oxide from propylene and hydrogen peroxide with the aid of a catalyst. The only by-product is water. Degussa has stated that it has no plans to become a volume producer of propylene oxide.

Major propylene oxide producers are already planning facilities that can produce at least 250,000 metric tons of propylene oxide a year. On this scale, each plant designed to use the new process would require annual H2O2 production capacity of over 180,000 metric tons. Propylene oxide is a starting product for polyurethane, which is used in applications such as cushions and car seats. The market for PO currently exceeds 5 million mt a year and Degussa and Headwaters believe that its growth prospects are excellent.

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