Many steps needed for full-fledged green chemicals industry, says Lux report

There still are many obstacles on the road to a fully commercial green chemicals industry. That is the upshot of a study by Boston based Lux Research, ‘Pruning the Cost of Bio-Based Materials and Chemicals’ (also see the interview with the report’s author Mark Bünger on this site). Even where conventional feedstock like maize and sugar cane is cheap and abundant, capital and operations costs may still stand in the way of commercial production.
‘If the entire green chemicals industry is to scale up, it needs to cultivate greater volumes of cheap, local biomass, convert a wider range of feedstock like waste and cellulosic material to intermediates, and process intermediates into higher-value chemicals.’

Lux Research is an independent research and advisory firm providing strategic advice on emerging technologies, including sustainable energy and building technologies. The ‘Pruning the Cost’ study was headed by Mark Bünger, Research Director of the Bio-based Materials and Chemicals and the Alternative Fuels groups.

The study finds it inherently impossible to make general judgements on commercial opportunities, in view of the many, often local, factors which influence them. ‘Beyond some obvious truths, evaluating the commercial and environmental viability of bio-based chemicals and fuels requires location-specific analysis. The road to economic viability requires improvements in dozens of steps in cultivation, conversion, and processing to higher-value output’, the study says. The Lux team tried to gather more insight in detailed analyses of three technological routes: gasification followed by syngas fermentation; enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass; and algae conservation.

Three main routes
The Lux report finds great new product potential in the syngas route. ‘The many products of syngas – via catalysis or increasingly, fermentation – already proven at lab scale or larger include ethanol, butanol, acetic acid, butyric acid, 2,3-butanediol, and methane.’

Enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass is still an emerging science. It has great opportunities, not only in ethanol production but also in a whole range of intermediate chemicals. ‘The problem is not only in the cellulosic processing, but in the ethanol glut that keeps demand down. With more microbes increasingly able to produce nearly any compound we get from petroleum, fixing process costs and diversifying output will improve the picture.’

The models on algae cultivation show losses, however. Lux judges that the problem with algae lies not in the organisms themselves, but in the cost and complexity of the facilities needed to grow algae at industrial scale.

Lux stresses that calculations on an average basis are almost always oversimplifications, and can be inadvertently or deliberately misleading. But, as they say, ‘a well-crafted model … can identify opportunities for improvement in cost and performance. Many opportunities for improvement come from swapping out existing technologies for newer ones. And looking to adjacent industries (wastewater in particular) provides insight and reduces technology risk.’

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