‘Consumers will soon notice that the origin of everyday products is changing, with items such as clothing, shoes, water and soda bottles, and even automobile tyres being manufactured from plant-based rather than petroleum-based materials. This quiet revolution has been steadily moving to the market place.’ An optimistic note in the opening of chapter 5 of a book that otherwise tends to be on the careful, if not pessimistic side: Commercializing Biobased Products. Edited by Seth W. Snyder and published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
The intention of the book is ‘to expand the breadth of the reader’s knowledge by considering supply chains, environmental impact, policy status, economic analysis, and a conjecture for a path forward. Therefore the aim of this book is to provide a comprehensive view of the state of the industry rather than the state of the technology’ (p.2). Nevertheless, most contributions are technological in nature. They concentrate on the question which technologies, feedstocks or platform chemicals can make a breakthrough in the near future – hence the ‘commercialization’ bit in the title. But the book does not concentrate on economic and marketing issues and gives no in-depth discussion of policy issues, even though it discusses inadequate policies in the US and the Netherlands. In fact, it is quite academic and chemical in nature (true to the publisher). And, if I might be allowed to vent yet another criticism, it does not by far span the entire biobased economy. It neglects major biobased sectors like agro/food and paper and pulp, and concentrates on chemical industry. Whereas it would seem to me that the mere concept of biorefinery implies the cross-sectoral nature of the biobased economy, the most interesting bits perhaps lying on the intersections. Therefore, the book does not discuss either the central commercialization issue of the biorefinery, the fact that different parts of the yield need to be marketed on different markets, each with volume and quality requirements of their own.
The advent of biobased products
That being said, the book contains many interesting observations. For instance, how are the famous promising biobased platform chemicals doing, identified in 2004 by US DoE as ‘most suited to replace petroleum-derived chemicals’? Quite well, actually. Of the 15 chemicals, 4 are already in commercial production from biobased feedstock: succinic acid, glycerol, sorbitol and xylitol. Three others will follow in the next decade: methanol/ethanol, 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid and 3-hydroxypropanoic acid. Five others are a ‘maybe’. But much work needs to be done. As researchers develop processes for the treatment of biobased feedstock, they increasingly discover that our present chemical knowledge is still on the petrochemical side. Typical reactions in the biobased product chain are different; and often, effective industrial catalysts for them still have to be developed. The challenge, particularly with lignocellulosic biomass, is to devise one-pot processes towards biobased products that avoid continuous separation processes.
Separation technology is another critical factor in commercializing biobased products. Here too, traditional separation technologies like distillation and evaporation are relatively of less significance in the treatment of biomass feedstock. Compounds in the biobased production chain are mainly solid and fluid, hardly ever gaseous – which makes a big difference in separation technology by itself. Modern energy efficient technologies like membrane separation and supercritical fluid extraction need to be developed further.
The way forward in the biobased economy
Lignin, the abundantly available but so far largely neglected biobased resource, gets attention in a special chapter. So far, lignin has predominantly been viewed as a side product, being used for energy production. Researchers have started to tackle the challenging issue of treating and valorising this feedstock. As the authors note, ‘lignin is an attractive starting material for the production of a wide range of fine chemicals and high-performance materials.’ But lignin research is still just taking off, and commercial biobased products are not around the corner.
There are chapters devoted to microbial oils, biobased organic acids, CO2 conversion and butanol production. LCA and supply chains are adequately treated. Policy issues are not treated systematically. With our present-day knowledge it is somewhat ironic that some authors assess the benefits of ‘high energy prices’ – the world changes continuously, and the challenges for biobased products do not get any smaller. The book ends with a chapter written by the editor with reflections on the way forward in the biobased economy. In order to commercialize biobased products successfully, the US and China should cooperate. American scientific and technological know-how needs to be fuelled by China’s need, drive and money, the editor suggests. Hoping that the bioeconomy could ‘foster economic development, environmental sustainability and international cooperation’ – the final remark of the book.
Commercializing Biobased Products, Opportunities, Challenges, Benefits and Risks. Edited by Seth W. Snyder. Royal Society of Chemistry, www.rsc.org (2016).