Over the last months, the outlook for biobased chemicals has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride. But despite shale gas boom and low oil prices — experts agree: the trend is towards bioeconomy, it’s just a question of speed. And lately there are some promising projects.
After initial euphoria about the bioeconomy which seemed to promise to solve several global problems — CO2 emissions, shortage of fossil fuels, sustainability — all at once, the shale gas boom in the United States and the low oil price threatened to crush the budding biobased industry before its first bloom. Especially for small molecules, the abundance of cheap ethane posed a hurdle that stopped a couple of projects such as an announced Green-ethylene plant by Dow, a bio-ethanol PVC plant by Solvay or a 500,000 t/a ethylene glycol plant by Indian JBF Industries.
A Silver Lining on the Horizon
In recent weeks, however, there seems to appear a silver lining on the horizon. In October, Covestro (formerly Bayer Material Science) and Reverdia announced their intent to jointly develop and promote thermoplastic polyurethanes based on renewable materials. Target industries are, among others, the footwear and consumer electronics industries. These “lifestyle industries” are currently increasing their efforts to re-invent their products, emphasizing sustainability and environmentally friendly products — and their customers are prepared to pay if they deem features such as biobased materials worth a prize premium.
Despite some recent setbacks due to the overall economic situation in its home country, Brazilian Braskem also continues its commitment to the shift from fossil to biobased resources and cooperates closely with companies like Amyris or Genomatica who develop customized microorganisms. Similar to the chemist’s “dream reaction” converting CO2 to valuable products, the biotechnologist’s “dream microbe” performs the direct fermentation of sugar to whatever desired product.
Routes researched at the moment include, amongst others, sugar to acrylic acid, propene, isobutene, isoprene, and butadiene. A 1,4-butanediol plant with direct fermentation is already in place; BASF operates it under license to Genomatica. First charges of THF produced from this butanediol have already been delivered to customers for testing.
Malayan and Brazilian Activities
In the meantime, countries rich in biomass such as Malaysia or Brazil are expanding their efforts to establish and expand their renewable chemicals industry. In 2014, the Brazilian Development Bank published a study on the diversification of the country’s chemical industry. Chemicals production from biomass features strongly in the report as it could create synergies between the agricultural and the chemical sector and contribute significantly to the Brazilian GDP. Malaysia is very active in searching cooperations in R&D and attracting investment to capitalize on the country’s rich resources in palm oil and residues from palm oil production.
And there is, of course, China — not so rich in available biomass, but eager to explore technological opportunities and the potential of feedstock such as rice straw or other residues. While focusing on biofuels (both 2nd generation ethanol and algae diesel), plants such as the commercial demonstration plant for the production of cellulosic sugars in the Jilin Province (run by Edeniq and Global Bio-chem Group Limited) are intended to be first steps in a value chain that eventually is intended to extend from the raw material to a broad range of biochemicals and biofuels.
* The author is Head of Biotechnology, DECHEMA e.V.