History never evolves in a straight line. Between the 19th century and the present is a century which increasingly produced energy and materials from quite another resource: crude oil, and partly from natural gas and coal, too. Although cardboard is still used in great quantities, it has been largely replaced by oil-based plastics. But the heyday of oil is over, and natural gas should be used carefully. New options have evolved for an economy which uses green resources for materials production, much smarter and much more sustainable than in the past.
This is the perspective of the biobased economy. In such an economy, we will produce materials, as smartly devised and as suitable as oil-based materials, or even greatly improved, from biobased resources or from agricultural side streams. The resource could be sugar beet, or potato, or grass, or imported biomass. In such an economy, chemical resources grow on the land. The focus will shift from petro to agro, from ‘gas’ to ‘grass’. Part of the biomass – notably the side stream after removal of valuable components through biorefinery – will be used for energy production. The whole scheme will not have a great effect on food supply – at least when it is applied intelligently.
Economy and sustainability
Why would such a biobased economy not only be beneficial for economic growth, but for sustainability as well? As for economic growth: European industries are in dire need for fundamentally new technologies, which can sustain their competition with rising economies. The newest technological developments produce not merely better quality products, but on top of that, a drastic reduction of energy, water and resource costs. And consumers ask for sustainability, not merely in Europe, but increasingly across the world. China’s latest five-year plans have ambitious sustainability goals, and this is supported by public opinion. The key to the miracle, how these diverse goals can jointly be met, is that industry no longer employs traditional technology, but smaller-scale natural and enzymatic processes.