The European biobased economy strategy should not lead through drop-in chemicals. The key is in Smart, Small and Clever.
New value chains
The present European biobased economy strategy, that heavily depends on biofuels, has led to unsatisfactory results, nova-Institute argues. There is no spill-over to innovative solutions. The biobased economy as nova envisages it ‘promises to introduce new chemicals, building blocks and polymers with new functionalities; to develop new process technologies such as industrial biotechnology, to deliver solutions for green and sustainable chemistry and circular economy. It is supposed to help mitigate climate change through the substitution of petrochemicals by materials with lower GHG emissions. It could bring new business opportunities, investment and employment to rural areas, foster regional development and support SMEs. And finally, the whole utilization of biomass could be optimized by new biorefinery concepts.’ According to nova-Institute.
In order to reap these benefits, the European biobased economy strategy should concentrate on the production of dedicated specialty chemicals and expand the biobased economy from there. Already today, the volume of these products in Europe is more than half of that of the biofuels and bioenergy sectors, and amounts to € 48 billion. There is much prospect of expanding this sector; supportive technologies, both chemical and biotechnological, are in rapid development. New value chains emerge, on the basis of new chemical building blocks. New strategies develop, that build on the use of complex structures already provided by nature: we do not always have to break down nature’s complexity to simple building blocks like drop-ins. Moreover, we increasingly learn how to extract highly valuable complex biomolecules. Like chemicals derived from tall oil, a side product of the pulp and paper industry, used for detergents, solvents, lubricants, paints and adhesives. Or proteins in their full functionality, side products of agri-industry.
A new biobased economy strategy
This innovative biobased economy, that builds upon biomass as nature supplies it, clearly has much more potential for the economy than attempts to copy existing petrochemical pathways. Its innovation potential is much higher. New biobased materials carry the promise of new functionalities and can expand their market share from there. Some chemicals can only be synthesized from petrochemical feedstock through very elaborate pathways, whereas biotechnology pathways can be short and efficient (and cheaper). This is particularly true for the family of diacids, of which biobased succinic acid is already produced commercially through biotechnology. Moreover, as the biobased economy expands, the utilization efficiency of the feedstock will become more important. Feeding biomass into traditional petrochemical pathways will typically result in much lower efficiencies. Much biomass is lost in the various reaction steps in the form of invaluable compounds like CO2 and H2O. Nova calculates that in order to produce biobased polyethylene (PE, a typical drop-in) from sugar cane, we need almost twice the cultivated area required for the production of the same amount of polylactide (PLA, a typical biobased polymer). Biomass utilization efficiency is of the utmost importance to avoid conflicts with food production in a growing biobased economy!
The typical production capacity for biobased dedicated chemicals is 20,000 to 40,000 tons per year. For the production of high-value specialties, even smaller plants are commercially feasible. The demand for biomass of those small and medium sized plants can be met locally. This ensures integration of the new industry into the local rural economy and avoids the necessity to transport low-value biomass feedstock across the globe. And, as nova indicates, the hottest new biobased chemicals can indeed be produced commercially in such low production volumes. The biobased economy strategy can successfully build on them. Such an economy will develop new chemicals and polymers with less unwanted by-products and have less environmental impact. It will deliver new and improved processes with better yields and better biomass utilization. It will create new business opportunities and bring employment to rural areas. And it will optimize biomass use through new and integrated biorefinery concepts. Smart, Small and Clever, the keys to a better biobased economy strategy. Europe needs to redefine its strategy, and find ways to support innovative biomass use as least as strongly as it does biofuels.