Safe & Sustainable Chemicals Series
Polymers From Biomass
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Published: February 2008
Increasingly, biomass is being utilized as a source of organic compounds—including polymers and their intermediate monomers and comonomers.
Several forces are driving this trend:
- The desire to produce materials from sustainable sources.
- The desire to be independent of foreign sources of these materials.
- The perceived need to produce materials with a smaller carbon footprint.
- A perceived need in the market for degradable, especially biodegradable, materials.
- The availability of cheap raw materials as a by-product of manufacturing biofuels.
- The increasing cost of petroleum.
Some "biopolymers" can be constructed entirely from biomass, whereas others are only partially derived from biomass, a portion of the polymer being derived from petrochemical sources. Also, it is apparent that in the future (indeed, already now) there will be competition between biomass source and petrochemical source monomers to make a particular polymer.
The following pie chart shows production of polymers from petrochemicals by petrochemical raw material:
The following pie chart shows the major polymers produced from biomass in 2007:
Among the major findings about obtaining polymers from biomass are the following, to name just a few:
While the promise of increasing production of biomass-derived polymers has generally not been fulfilled, the industry is poised to start significant growth.
The increased production of biofuels, especially biodiesel from the transesterification of fats and oils, is making glycerin a cheap organic material. Substantial research effort has been expended to make this a raw material for various organic chemicals. Not the least of these is material that can be used in various thermoplastic and thermoset polymers.
Biodegradability is a major driving force for some biopolymers. This tends to limit the applications that can use these materials. Another factor related to the use of these materials is regulation against plastics—of any type—being used for certain applications that are most amenable to the use of biodegradable resins, such as carryout bags.
Many new monomers (and therefore polymers) have been proposed based on the structure of chemicals that might be obtained by careful degradation of biomass. For many of these to become commercial, much work must be done.
Biological materials are also being used as reinforcements and fillers for plastic compounds and composites. One important growth driver here is recycling of plastic. A major market for these materials is in synthetic lumber made from recycled plastic materials and natural fibers and fillers.
This report, a companion to the S&SC report Chemicals from Biomass, profiles the production of polymers from biomass sources, emphasizing products that are generally of a commodity nature. Commodity here refers to volume and price; that is, very expensive biopolymers that are produced in low volume for very specialized uses are beyond the scope of this report. An example of such polymers is those that have been developed for use in medical applications such as sutures.
We define biopolymer as a polymer that is produced at least in part from biomass. Through this attribute, it generally can be claimed that some degree of sustainability is achieved with the products. Likewise, claims of lower greenhouse emissions, especially carbon dioxide, may also be justified.
The types of products examined in this report include those that are based at least in a significant way on biomass and that biomass-derived material is contained in the final product. These can be thermoplastic resins, thermosetting resins, fibers or plastic compounds.
This report is divided into several sections based on the general nature of the biomass-derived material; that is, what is the role of biomass in the product—a minor one or the entire source of the product? Major sections discuss cellulosic polymers, monomers from biomass, comonomers from biomass, polymers direct from biomass, old polymers/monomers from new sources, proposed new monomers, and composite and compound fillers/fibers from biomass.