The environmental movement of the seventies, precursor to the present movement for sustainability, was largely anti-technological. Technology seemed to be inherently large-scale; it produced nuclear power stations and polluting chemical complexes. But technology has taken a turn into the opposite direction. In sectors like automotive, energy supply, agriculture and chemistry almost all R&D is devoted to energy and resource conservation, and lowering waste production and the footprint, in short sustainability. With dazzling results.
Green chemistry’s first success
Some thirty years ago, synthetic antibiotics were produced from oil. These had a bitter taste and had to be encapsulated in order to be administered. Nowadays, pills are small and white, odourless and tasteless. This is the result of the discovery of completely new production mechanisms, called ‘green pathways’ by developer DSM.
The green pathway project was a joint undertaking of DSM and Gist-brocades (which later merged), and four Dutch universities, by the end of the 1990s. Some eighty researchers participated, evenly split among university and business. The aim was to produce synthetic penicillins from vegetal resources (sugars), through fermentation using natural catalysts (enzymes). The project was a dazzling success. The products were better than existing organic-synthetic products in every respect. They had no bitter taste, they did not smell (as there were no traces of organic solvents left), and shelf life proved to be much better. There were impressive footprint gains: 66% less energy use, 75% less resource use, 90% less waste production (and less toxic waste), 50% less water and air pollution. The sustainability score proved to be better in every respect, and there was a tremendous commercial success. The green pathways still contribute to DSM’s balance sheet.
The most important effect, however, is that prices of the world’s main antibiotics fell by a factor of 10 and more, mainly because of the discovery of these green pathways. Now, also the world’s poor have access to antibiotics.
Towards green bulk chemistry
Green chemicals from fermentation now enter the market. The obvious classical product is ethanol, produced in bulk from sugar cane in Brazil, and from maize (corn) in the US. Ethanol’s main industrial application is as a motor fuel, but some large factories in Brazil already use ethanol as a feedstock for polyethylene and PVC. Other chemicals from sugars and carbohydrates will follow, like succinic acid from maize and sugar beet. In Thailand, tapioca starch is the feedstock for chemicals like lactic acid (mainly for production of its polymer, PLA).
All these are first generation processes: industry produces these chemicals from edible feedstock (sugars, starch). Chemical specialties like pharmaceuticals do not require much feedstock; they can be produced from edible feedstock without compromising food supply. But that may not be true for bulk markets like the polymers and plastics market (world production ca. 300 million tons/year). Therefore, industries research second generation processes, not only for biofuels but also for biochemicals production, on the basis of cellulosic feedstock. Recently, DSM made a big step; it will build a factory for ethanol production from corn stover in a fermentation process, together with its American partner POET.
A new industrial logic
The future green chemical industry will be completely different from present industry. Fermentation is a process that can be done on a small scale, like people know who brew beer at home. The factories will hardly use toxic substances and do not pose explosion risks. The smaller installations might be constructed adjacent to their rural resource suppliers. In the decades to come, major chemical complexes will make way for medium-sized factories near villages, like the erstwhile dairy factories. In the chemical community this development is coined a ‘new industrial logic’.
As chemical plants will increasingly become based on fermentation, an old industrial rule will not apply any more, requiring installations to be big in order to be cost-effective. This rule was valid for energy intensive industrial processes (producing or requiring a lot of heat; also see the column ‘Agro rock, agro lit, agro fashion’ on this site, 2 July, 2012). Using fermentation, we do not need major investments in huge plants any more. The mild reactions in a biobased industry require no more than small-scale installations and moderate investment. Very interesting for (reluctant) investors or authorities.
The end of mega carriers?
Smaller factories, adjacent to feedstock suppliers, require less transport. New transport patterns will emerge, more locally in nature. This will also allow for minerals to be returned to the land (a prerequisite for a biobased economy). A good example is Grassa, a project for processing grass into fibres and proteins at the farm, allowing the unused liquid side stream to be returned to the land directly. Regional self-sufficiency will increase: they will need less goods from elsewhere, as they will be able to produce more products themselves. Different production systems may evolve in different regions, depending on soil conditions and crops. They will share knowledge intensity, sustainability, rural development, and consequently new social structures (see trend 3).
An evolving biobased economy may have a major influence on world trade. As yet, bulk products like crude oil play a major role, but they will become less prominent. In the past fifty years, unit costs of logistics have fallen continuously, as a result of scaling up and cost-cutting. This trend might continue, but on the basis of a completely different mechanism: transport of less bulky, higher-value commodities. Cellulosic biomass as such will hardly be shipped over great distances: too voluminous, too wet. Biomass producing countries will process this feedstock into higher-value intermediates; these have a higher unit value, resulting in decreasing unit transport costs. But the world will need less mega carriers.
Some processes will remain large-scale
There is a second pillar under green chemistry, however: thermo chemistry. Gasification is a major thermo chemical process. Gasification entails high-temperature treatment of the feedstock (e.g. biomass, or other carbon containing feedstock like coal and waste materials, even municipal waste), with addition of some oxygen; the resulting mix mainly contains hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), and some methane (CH4), and is called synthesis gas or syngas. Cost-effective syngas production requires quite large installations, and syngas is a very common feedstock in petro chemistry; thermo chemical ‘industrial logic’ therefore is not inherently small-scale. For other reasons as well, petro chemistry will be around for some time: cheap shale gas is a very good feedstock for many petrochemical reactions.
Other major thermo chemical processes from biomass feedstock are pyrolysis and torrefaction. These entail heating biomass to produce a liquid or a solid fuel, respectively. These fuels are easy to ship across large distances, and are good substitutes for oil (products) and coal.
The discovery of new biobased polymers parallels the development of green chemistry. At present, the far majority of plastics is still produced from oil. But the most progressive chemical industries try to enlarge the share of renewable resources. At first, ‘green’ intermediates and end products will still be chemically identical to petrochemical products. But completely biobased new polymers are coming to the market, and so do corresponding intermediary products.
The hit in the coming years will probably be polylactic acid (PLA), a very versatile biobased polymer, developed by Cargill for the unbelievable sum of one billion dollars. PLA is marketed in many forms, from biodegradable packing material to strong specialized plastics. PLA’s importance is its versatility, combined with decreasing production costs. PLA will penetrate in many applications in the years to come. Another promising biobased polymer is furanics (PEF), developed by Avantium, which stand a good chance of replacing PET (from the PET-bottle). PET is one of the major polymers on the world market, and this substitution would therefore make a big dent in the world market.
But green chemistry will also produce very specialized polymers, like special polyesters (PHA’s), applicable as a prosthesis for bone or tissue, and subsequently broken down and absorbed by the body itself. New specialised biobased polymers are being developed. Increasingly, biobased feedstock is processed in a sustainable way. There is an increasing number of specialized cultures of microorganisms which can process biomass or waste streams into a whole array of biopolymers.
Toward a holistic chemistry
In the long run, a new, ‘holistic’ chemistry will develop. This will be able to produce materials as complex as the feedstock itself, not by breaking down the feedstock to simple building blocks and building up a new complexity, but by retaining complexity all the way along the production process. Take the egg shale as an example; per unit of weight this is the strongest construction material on earth. The challenge would be to develop a construction material as strong as an eggshell, by copying its production pathway, but without the intermediate of a chicken. Eventually, science and technology will leave their present reductionist principles aside, and will develop on a holistic basis. Micro bacterial processing of side streams into biopolymers, just mentioned, is an elegant entry into this development.
Rural development as the new economic motor
In such a ‘biobased society’ the relationship between the city and the countryside will change fundamentally: rural development could become a motor to the economy as a whole, once again. Across the world. As crops, soil and climate differ per region, different production chains will develop in different places. Even among Europe’s regions, products and chains may differ greatly, let alone among continents. In these new chains, farmers will not merely produce for food supply, but also – often with side products of the same crop – for biomaterials. Agriculture and chemical industry will come closer. Peak oil will not determine this process; rather the successful continuous development of new ‘green pathways’. Or, citing an expression frequently used by Shell: ‘The stone age did not come to an end because of a lack of stones’.
This article consists of the following paragraphs:
Does the future look grim?
Trend 1. Women will take the lead
Trend 2. Organisations will be founded on trust
Trend 3. New social networks are on the rise
Trend 4. Sustainability as a common goal
Trend 5. Decentralisation of industry in a biobased society
Trend 6. Small-scale energy systems
Trend 7. Europe was, is and will remain one of the most important producers of scientific knowledge in the world
Conclusion: think global, act local