Bioeconomy Bio-Based Chemical Industry – Caught in the Fossil Trap?

Author / Editor: Prof. Dr. Kurt Wagemann and Dr. Kathrin Rübberdt / Dr. Jörg Kempf

The US chemical industry thrives on shale gas, coal chemistry is celebrating a comeback in China. Where does this leave visions of a bio-based chemical industry on a broad range?

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(Picture: Fotolia - Brian Jackson)

For the first time in the history of the chemical industry, the raw material base is not changing globally, but becoming differentiated according to region. As BASF Vice Chairman Martin Brudermüller pointed out at the biannual DECHEMA and ProcessNet conference, while shale gas acts as a game changer in the U.S., China focuses on coal, South America aims to make use of its renewable resources, while traditional oil and gas remain a major raw material source in Europe. Global companies adapt to these regional developments by broadening the range of their technologies, making use of whatever is available on the regional market.

For apologists of a completely bio-based future, this must appear as a severe drawback. Why should companies invest in technologies to produce bulk chemicals such as ethylene or propylene from biomass when they are available cheaply and in abundance from ethane crackers and via propane dehydrogenation? Why develop bio-based pathways to commodities when the well-established and optimized highways from petrochemicals remain open?

New Opportunities for Bio-Based Chemicals

On closer analysis, however, there is no need to ring bioeconomy’s death bell even before its proper birth. On the contrary, the shift in the raw material base may result in new opportunities for bio-based processes. Bio-based ethylene and propylene will not be competitive in the foreseeable future, but the production of functionalized molecules such as lactic acid or propane diols from biomass is very attractive.

The increasing use of shale gas leads to a shortage of C4 and higher hydrocarbons as well as aromatics. The effects are already visible: Over the last months, massive investments in plants for the bio-based production of butanediols and succinic acid have been announced, and research efforts in this area seem to have increased significantly.

While access to the “simple” aromatics xylene and phenol still remains a largely unsolved challenge for bio-based routes, there exists in principle an attractive route to terephthalic acid from carbohydrates via 5-hydroxy-methyl-furfural.