Safe & Sustainable Chemicals Series
Chemicals From Biomass
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Published: November 2007
This report identifies the chemicals that are produced from biomass today and compares them with those that are prepared from fossil feedstocks. Furthermore, the report examines how this source of chemicals may grow in the future. Areas where competition now or in the future is likely to occur are pointed out.
Chemicals can be obtained from biomass in many different ways and for many reasons. They can be obtained for their own value as the major product desired from the production and processing of biomass. At the other extreme, they can be obtained as a relatively trivial product, economically speaking, of other operations that process biomass such as the food or forest product industries. For certain segments of the chemical industry, however, these materials are hardly considered trivial since they form the most economic source of various chemical species.
Biomass, or biological sources, includes a wide range of raw materials. These can be plant or animal, something produced on purpose or as a by-product/waste material. They can even be inorganic, but are generally hydrocarbons, often with oxygen or nitrogen also part of their molecular structure. The following table summarizes these materials by major source of origin. These categories are discussed in detail in the report.
World Production of Chemicals from Biomass—2006
(millions of tons)
Fermentation Products 8.1 Food/Agriculture 4.5 Forest By-Products 3.4 Biofuel By-Products 1.2 Natural Products 0.5 Thermally Derived Products 0.2 Total 17.9 Source: SRI Consulting*
*IHS is permitted by SRI to continue using the SRI Consulting name and trademarks on relevant historical reports published prior to April 1, 2012.
Chemicals from biomass is hardly a new concept. Indeed, the use of biomass for chemical (and energy) uses was the norm for a large portion of chemicals produced prior to the twentieth century. With increased use of personal transportation—the private automobile—the use of energy increased. In tandem with the increase of motor fuel production came increased supplies of fossil hydrocarbon materials that were most readily and economically used for the manufacture of chemicals. Motor fuels and petrochemicals essentially developed together, with the most dramatic growth after World War II.
With increased refining of petroleum during the twentieth century, the importance of biomass sources tended to decrease. The renewed interest in biofuels has, at least in part, spurred interest in also producing chemicals from biomass. Today, there are several ways in which chemicals—generally organic chemicals, as one would expect—can be recovered from biomass.
Competition between chemicals manufactured from biomass and fossil-based raw materials occurs at several levels. Essentially the biomass can be a direct substitute for petroleum, it can yield alternative intermediates to the petrochemical route or it can yield a substitution product of different composition but similar function.
There are several economic hurdles to overcome in order to use biomass to produce chemicals. The following list is hardly exhaustive:
- Gathering of biomass is often highly labor intensive compared with fossil fuels (certainly once the oil well has started to produce)
- The yield of chemical per hectare of land may be low
- The chemical portion of the biomass is often the by-product and not the main product, complicating economics at a given time
- Chemical production by biomass is a slow process (e.g., it takes a growing season or much more), especially compared with refinery processes (once the fossil feedstock is obtained)
Several advantages can be gained by using biomass as a source of chemicals, among which are the following:
- The chemicals obtained from biomass can be starting materials for more complex chemicals that would be more expensive if petroleum-based products were the original starting materials.
- It frees the user from the vagaries of petroleum pricing and availability.
- It provides a way to produce chemicals with less environmental impact. (This can be through the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide. If the product is ultimately disposed of through incineration or in any way that increases carbon dioxide emissions, then sourcing through biomass may alleviate this situation, if only partially in some cases.)
One of the first major chemical companies to point to the need for energy and chemicals from biomass was DuPont. It claims to be one of the first companies, about twenty years ago, to establish environmental goals. A wide range of specific initiatives support a goal of doubling revenues from "nondepletable resources" from $4 billion to $8 billion by 2015. The company plans by that time to achieve a total of $6 billion or more in additional revenue from "sustainability commitments."
The Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) is in the process of developing an International Center for Sustainable Chemistry. Initial efforts toward this were originally announced in late 2006.
The Institute for Sustainability (IfS) is a technical society of The American Institute of Chemical Engineers formed during 2004. One of the main tasks of this organization is to develop an index of sustainability, as well as foster implementation. While many such indexes have been developed, the IfS is focused on factors important to the chemical processing industry: strategic commitment, safety performance, social responsibility, value-chain management, innovation, product stewardship, and environmental performance.
SusChem is a joint venture of CEFIC and EuropaBio organized in cooperation with the European Union to strengthen European research in chemistry, engineering and biotechnology. It has established a set of actions that is called "Vision for 2025 and Beyond." Impetus for this effort, among others, is the fact that the European share of global chemical output declined from about 32% during the mid-1990s to 28% during the mid-2000s with much of this decline due to increases in Asia. An important part of implementing a European biotechnology strategy will be overcoming the inherent suspicion of biotechnology that seems to predominate in Western Europe. Needless to say, an important aspect of implementation will be to remove any regulatory obstacles that will thwart these efforts.