Chemical companies are striving to embrace bio-based production to ensure their long-term sustainability. But there are many issues to resolve and questions to answer.
Most, if not all, major chemical producers and major agriculture combines are looking at the potential for renewable raw materials to replace petrochemical feedstocks, in some areas of their operations at least.
And it is not just the majors that are investing heavily into the required technologies. Small, hi-tech start-ups are often leading the way in technology terms. Many have been lured in and supported by the huge political push in North America and
Europe for alternative fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel.
But increasingly, these firms are focusing on devising routes to chemicals from biomass, as the market and prospects for further fuels investment stalls due to concerns over subsidies and the nonfood use of crops.
The stimulus from the fuels sector to the use of renewable raw materials to make existing and new chemicals and materials has been beneficial, however. Not only has it kick-started production on a scale not seen before, but it has begun to show how the logistics of using crop-derived materials might be managed to enable widespread production of chemical inter-mediates and products such as polymers, surfactants, solvents and lubricants.
The problem is that in the main, the feedstocks – starches, sugars, cellulose and oils and fats – are produced in rural areas, away from industrial production centres, and in low density. Thus the bulky raw materials have to be transported over some distances, adding significant costs and environmental impacts.
Before the bio-based economy can truly begin to play a significant part in industrial output, such problems will need to be solved at technical and economic levels.