Friday, 4 March 2011

Bio-economy needs supply chain innovation

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.

Another major challenge to overcome is to bring bio-based products to the market in a profitable way. The goal of many companies is to develop higher value-added bioproducts, but before these can be successfully introduced, companies have to produce lower value-added products, simply to fund development costs and to prove the technologies involved.

The slow adoption of biopolymers competing against well established petrochemical-derived materials is a salient example. With costs driven down over many years of production experience, conventional polymers are cost-effective in their areas of application. Bio-polymers have to compete on niche performance benefits or on their green credentials.

Perhaps a more rational way, and one that is being used by several technology start-ups, is to produce bio-based intermediates, such as ethylene and butanediol, that can be used in conventional reactions to produce existing products. There is then little or no market development needed and the bioroute has only to prove it can make biointermediates that are identical to oil-based intermediates.

The drawback here, say some, is that the established chemical industry in Western economies will see this as a way of going half-way down the green route, and will still operate its large chemical plants to produce conventional products albeit from renewable resources.

The risk is that emerging economies and technologies will leapfrog them to develop truly green products that are more competitive in the longer term. India and China are certainly looking at bio-based production and, given raw material availability and an innovative approach, could certainly produce some interesting and surprising developments.

A third route, now being opened up, is to use bio-based feedstocks to produce a range of novel intermediates that can then be used to produce products in well-known families. Thus succinic acid is receiving a lot of attention at the moment and can be used in the production of polyurethanes, coatings, solvents, thermoset resins and so on.

Further into the future lies the concept of the biorefinery, whereby a range of bio-raw materials will be converted using a variety of techniques into a range of chemical intermediates, ready for downstream conversion. This approach is today still in basic research but has very large potential.

All of the above raises as many questions as it does answers. What makes a location competitive for green chemistry, and which routes are the most promising in terms of technology and market reception? Can a bio-based economy be established on imported feedstocks or should these be locally available? Is fermentation of sugars the best route forward or production via bio-syngas?

Even more fundamentally, should companies start investing in technologies and market introductions even before government incentives or legislations are fully in place? And how should agricultural business chains collaborate with the chemical and materials industry and the sector of transport and logistics?

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