INSIGHT: Bio-processes and products looking for a market

05 April 2011 15:52  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--The dominance of biofuels has been such that it is difficult to envisage the breadth and depth of work being undertaken globally to develop new bio-based routes to chemicals.

Across multiple markets, however, inroads are being made into the chemical industry’s reliance on oil and creating new reaction pathways to products as diverse as carbon fibre, isocyanates and cosmetics.

New research published by technology and business development network provider SpecialChem exposes a huge amount of market interest in certain product areas. It crystallises the thoughts of almost 1,800 participants, expressed in an online “Ideation Lab” held in 2010.

“At this point in time, bio-based initiatives are still more technology-driven than market driven,” SpecialChem admits, although its work has shown many customers are looking for bio-alternatives.

“Most people still think in terms of ‘how can I make the same or similar molecule to a specific petrochemical equivalent?’” SpecialChem says. “Bio-based aliphatic systems are getting closer, since aromatic systems do not exist on a commercial scale,” it adds.

The drive has been to try to penetrate these important petrochemical value chains but there are other trends which suggest inroads will be made in other valuable segments of the industry.

The most mature bio-based technologies are based on the processing of glycerol, soya bean, castor oil or starches as raw materials. However, SpecialChem's work shows many companies are in concept and design stages for the production of materials such as water-barrier biopolymers for packaging, carbon fibre – from black liquor – bio-based rust treatment chemicals and bio-based isocyanates from soya or furfural. Technology developers are seeking market partners and vice versa.

In its ‘ideation’ process, which gathers questions, comments and general statements from multiple sources in a live, web-based environment, participants posted numerous requests for bio-based materials and chemicals. This fact alone suggests suppliers need to reinforce their market visibility and market education, SpecialChem suggests.

There were many requests for aromatics and intermediates, which highlights a need for technology to catch up with market demand. However, that demand comes with a warning – new processes will not only have to be greener than ones they replace but confer some other, more tangible, benefit.

“In general, markets are not ready to strongly compromise on performance solely for bio-based features,” the consultants say.

There is a clear need, however, for biodegradable chemicals – such as solvents for cleaners or lubricants, or ingredients for shampoos – which are released into the environment. The suggestion is that the industry has to move beyond biodegradable plastics.

There is a growing interest in bio-catalytic processes for next-generation chemicals, SpecialChem adds.

“Adhesives seem quite fertile territory, with several concepts related to bio-based polyurethane adhesives, including people looking for bio-based cross-linkers and bio-based acrylates,” it adds. “People are trying to assess the market for biodegradable adhesives, for example, using mussel or algal extracts as ingredients.”

The survey has shown, however, that the right connections will have to be made if some of these technologies and processes are to have any chance of getting off the ground.

“Connecting new technologies and bio-based materials developed at universities and small companies with markets remains a significant hurdle,” SpecialChem says.

The development of industrial biotechnology in its broadest sense is not following a linear course. Some are seeking “drop-in” replacements for existing chemicals because bio-based means lower cost. Others are developing new products (chemicals) with improved performance by following a bio-based reaction pathway.

One participant in the networking process suggests there are tonnes of products sitting on the shelf, simply because scientists are not salespeople.

Doris de Guzman examines alternative processing and new technology in her Green Chemicals blog for ICIS

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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