09/12/2011

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Chemical Building Blocks from Renewables

Driven in part by manufacturers seeking to create more sustainable products, bio (plant)-based feedstocks are beginning to challenge the dominance of fossil fuels as starting materials for chemicals, according to a new report from information and analysis provider IHS. The resulting chemicals are the building blocks of renewably sourced plastics, fibers, coatings and other everyday products. The IHS report, entitled Chemical Building Blocks from Renewables - SRI Consulting Safe & Sustainable Chemicals Report, examines economic and market drivers for more than 20 emerging and established bio-based chemicals. It describes technology developers, markets, applications and manufacturing processes (both bio-based and conventional) for each chemical. Several have the potential to serve as bio-fuels or bio-fuel feedstocks as well as chemical intermediates. "The bio-based chemicals sector is evolving rapidly and is poised to transform the production of industrial chemicals,” said Marifaith Hackett, chemical analyst at IHS and author of the report. "Like the bio-fuels industry, the bio-based chemicals industry seeks to replace fossil-fuel-based feedstocks with plant-based starting materials. What is different here is that demand for bio-fuels is driven by regulation, while demand for bio-based industrial chemicals depends on economic factors and customer interest in renewably sourced materials, particularly in the packaging area.” Hackett cites high-profile packaging innovations such as Coca-Cola's PlantBottle, which is made from bio-based polyethylene or partially bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET), as a key example of how these advances are creating a new market for renewably sourced chemical building blocks. Since these bio-based chemicals are derived from agricultural products such as sugarcane, corn and vegetable oils, Hackett said the value chain for the emerging bio-based chemicals sector differs significantly from that of the chemical industry and that nontraditional players - notably industrial biotechnology firms and start-up companies with focused expertise in chemical catalysis - are emerging as chemical producers and technology licensors. In many cases, these companies are partnering with established agricultural processors and chemical manufacturers to gain access to capacity, fermentation or chemical processing expertise, proprietary technology, or feedstocks such as glucose or sucrose. "We are seeing an industry shift as new players move in to compete on the same turf as petrochemical companies,” said Hackett. "Agricultural processors, for example, play a very important role in this sector. While much of what we are talking about now is the potential of what this industry can be, this concept of replacing fossil-fuel-based chemicals with plant-based chemicals is not a twinkle in some scientist's eye. Some products are already in the market and companies will start to build large-scale plants to accommodate the demand growth.” Access to cost-competitive, plant-based starting materials is a key source of competitive advantage for producers of renewably sourced chemicals, according to the report. As a result, bio-based chemical manufacturers are concentrated in nations with rich agricultural resources, including southern Brazil and the Midwestern United States. In contrast to their importance in the conventional chemical industry, regions like the Middle East, which are rich in oil and natural gas but poor in agricultural resources, have little role in the bio-based chemicals sector. "Crude oil and natural gas remain the dominant feedstocks for the global chemical industry, but renewable, bio-based feedstocks are emerging as viable alternatives to fossil fuels,” Hackett commented. "In many cases, the chemicals made from these renewable feedstocks already have markets - they are ‘drop-in replacements' for existing, crude-based chemicals.” Economics, she said, as well as technology improvements, are two key indicators for how quickly this transformation occurs. "In many cases, production routes for renewably sourced chemicals are first-generation technologies, so room for improvement exists. However, some bio-based chemicals are economically competitive in their current state of development,” Hackett said. The first commercial use of bio-based isoprene, for example, could be polyisoprene for tire applications, with the bio-based isoprene being used as a drop-in substitute for fossil-fuel-based isoprene. Genencor plans to initiate industrial-scale production in 2015 or 2016, and its development partner, Goodyear, could begin to manufacture polyisoprene soon thereafter, according to the IHS report. In the longer-term, derivatives of bio-based isoprene could see use in transportation fuels as potential blend components or replacements for conventional (crude-oil based) gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. The report covers emerging markets, technologies and issues confronting the chemical industry in the 21st century. These reports analyze the impact of new energy sources, regulations and other factors on consumption of chemicals and materials now and into the immediate future.

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