News focus: Bio-materials face up to challenges

23 April 2012 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Bio-based materials are certainly coming of age. A whole range of initiatives is moving from demonstration status to commercialization in locations around the world. End-use development is ramping up too.

The latest news items report, for instance, that Dutch technology start-up Avantium is partnering with French food major Danone to develop recyclable PEF (polyethylene furanoate) bottles for Danone's global bottled water business and that the Vinythai subsidiary of Belgium's Solvay has commissioned a 100,000 tonne/year epichlorohydrin (ECH) plant in Map Ta Phut, Thailand, using refined glycerin for feedstock.

Bio materials Rex Features

 © Rex Features

Chemical producers are looking ahead to bio-materials

Other leading examples include bio-based polymers such as polylactic acid, polyethylene (PE) and polyester terephthalate (PET); drop-in bio-replacements such as butanediol, acrylic acid and adipic acid; and more complex intermediate starting points such as succinic acid.

The levels of investment required for scale-up and commercialization are spurring technology start-ups to look to chemical and agricultural majors to partner with for financing and market entrance.


But there is more than one approach to bio-based materials and it is not clear which will prove most successful in the long run. Nor is it evident at this stage whether bio-based chemicals can compete purely on a cost basis or whether the wider value envelop - including a green premium - will have to be invoked.

Many alternative routes to exploit biomass - enzymatic, catalytic and via pyrolysis - are being developed and are showing varying levels of technical and economic promise. Moving away from fermentation of sugars and starches looks attractive in the longer term, given arguments over the use of food crops for chemical production, but second-generation processes using biomass and bio-waste are less efficient at present, and maybe it will prove better to break down the biomass to syngas and then build up again to chemicals via Fischer-Tropsch technology.

Then again, it might prove better in the long run to derive a whole range of products from selected biomass in biorefineries. And work is now beginning to progress on using captured carbon dioxide as a C1 feedstock for chemical production, in such areas as polyurethanes and polycarbonate chemicals for use in adhesives and sealants for instance.

As volumes do grow, there is the ever-present issue of feedstock availability and logistics. It certainly makes sense to produce some bio-based materials in areas rich in sugar, palm oils and corn - notably Brazil, some parts of Asia and North America, respectively, but is it feasibly to transport large amounts of low-density biomass, produced in disperse areas, to production units in Europe, for instance?

Demonstration-scale production in the tens of thousands of tonnes/year may not prove too difficult to service, but if and when this scales up commercially to hundreds of thousands of tonnes/year, the sourcing and logistics challenges multiply.

All this raises the question of whether bio-based chemicals can ever become more than a niche section of a still predominantly petrochemical-based industry.

There is no question, however, says Ton Runneboom, chairman of the Netherland's BioRenewables Business Platform, that demand for bio-based chemicals at the consumer will exceed supply for some time, as there is a "fantastic consensus on the need to act sustainably".

Some companies, he notes will lead the way with bio-based packaging and ingredients, while others will wait until the market really develops. What is certain, he believes, is that production of bio-materials will not be able to support the potential growth in the market. "These will always be specialties," he notes, which will enable them to attract a premium price in the market as consumer goods producers seek to meet their environmental and sustainability goals and promises.


These questions and the issues surrounding bio-based materials uptake will be discussed shortly at the second Bio-Based Chemicals Roundtable being organised by ICIS and NOM, the Northern Netherlands Investment and Development Agency. The discussion will take place on April 27 in Amsterdam and a full report will be published in a later issue of ICIS Chemical Business.

Alle Bruggink, a technology and sustainability consultant, concurs with this view in the longer term. Even by using drop-in replacements for petrochemical building blocks, he believes volumes will not be so big as to be able to meet governments' ambitious targets for bio-based production.


He sees the market for bio-based materials in two main parts - with uptake being driven in the fine and specialty chemicals area driven by private producers looking for green alternatives, and uptake in the bulk and commodity petrochemicals sector being driven largely by legislation and brand-owners such as Coca-Cola, Danone and Unilever looking for a value package of green credentials.

Bio-materials will certainly be playing a larger role in the chemical sector very shortly, but on what terms. And which areas will be sustainable in the long term?

By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214

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