Plant Engineering Biomass Bioplastics on the Move! – How Can Plant Engineering React to the Biomass Boom?

Author / Editor: Courteousy of DECHEMA / Dominik Stephan

Biomass – more than just a fuel for power generation: It carries the hope to be usable for an ever–increasing number of chemical intermediates and finished products. Let's take a look at the challenges that the biomass conversion, bioplastics and renewable feedstock poses for plant engineering...

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World’s first line of biodegradable beach toys
World’s first line of biodegradable beach toys
(Picture: European Bioplastics)

When asked during an interview with EFCE whether bio-based technologies can replace conventional oil-based technologies, Steen Riisgaard, President and CEO of the Danish firm Novozymes A/S, replied that there is no limit to the possibilities. He said that he does not expect to see an economy totally based on biotechnology any time soon, but he is confident that the chemical industry will take full advantage of the available opportunities.

Biomass and the related markets are in the ascendency, and that is reflected in the investment levels. The Biomass Markets and Technologies study published by Pike Research at the end of 2010 provided data to support this view, and it made the prediction that worldwide investment in the biomass market will continue to grow at a stable rate over the next five years. According to the study, investment will increase from $28.2 billion in 2010 to $33.7 billion in 2015.

Renaissance of the Oldest Source of Energy

Biomass is mankind's oldest source of energy. Wood has kept people warm since time immemorial. The exploitation of biomass as a raw material base is a more recent development. According to the German Chemical Federation (VCI), annual consumption of biomass in the German chemical industry is roughly 2.7 million MT which is about 13 % of the raw material base in the industry. The fossil resources coal, oil and gas used to be cheap, but the attitude in the industry has changed dramatically.

Making Chemical Products from Biomass

Biomass covers a broad spectrum both in terms of the source of materials and the end products. The European Biomass Industry Association (EUBIA) has defined four categories of biomass conversion: direct combustion, thermochemical conversion processes (pyrolysis and gasification), biochemical processes (anaerobic digestion, fermentation) and physicochemical (the route to biodiesel). The choice of technology depends on the chemical composition of the raw materials and the target product.

Similar to a petrochemical refinery, biorefineries convert biomass to produce a series of chemical raw materials and fuel products. Integrated biorefinery concepts are still in their infancy for the most part, and as a result biorefineries in Germany and the rest of Europe are few and far between. Most are demonstration or pilot plants. Biorefineries operating on a commercial basis tend to be the exception.

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