19 October 2012 09:45 [Source: ICB]
If the annual ICIS Innovation Awards, now in their ninth year, are a representative indicator then we have certainly in the last few years moved from the "emerging" towards the "developing" phase of the classic "S"-curve for bio-based materials, points out Neil Checker, partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants.
"Most estimates suggest that biopolymers still represent less than 1% of total plastics consumption"
These include leading US technology start-ups, such as Genomatica, Myriant, Solazyme and Renmatix, but also existing producers such as Arkema and Hycrete. Looking back to 2011, bio-based short-listed entries came also from LanzaTech, BioAmber and Zeachem.
Many of these are now moving from the development phase to demonstration or commercial scale, often in partnership with the chemical majors.
But, as with all innovative activity, says Checker, the business and commercial impact of bio-based technologies will take time to emerge and mature. "If we consider bioplastics, for example, an area that has witnessed significant developments over the past 20 years and more, most estimates suggest that biopolymers still represent less than 1% of total plastics consumption."
Some observers would argue that in other areas, "bio" has had significant impact, for example, in oleochemical-based surfactants, which are estimated to account for over 50% of the market. However, he says, "we might suggest that it has taken this sector a 100 years to become an 'overnight' commercial success."
The challenge for bio-based chemicals more broadly, says Checker, is that current "first", and even many "second" generation technologies, have not demonstrated what Roland Berger terms the BioValue Pyramid, consisting of bio-image, combined with unique functionality (for products, versus, say, building blocks or intermediates) and based on an economically sustainable technology platform.
"This is what we would term the 'next generation', where 'next' is not defined by a numeric value but more by its required characteristics." These, he outlines as:
No competition for scarce resources such as food or agricultural land
Cost-competitive with petrochemical based products at $100/bbl oil and comparable capital intensity
Carbon dioxide neutral.
"Given human ingenuity this is not an impossible challenge. In reviewing the ICIS Innovation Awards entries over the years, we have seen breakthroughs year on year that move us closer to such targets. But, unlike the oleosurfactants, I personally wish to see success here come sooner rather than later!" he concludes.
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