Our industrialized world is largely dependent on fossil resources, whether for the generation of energy, as a fuel, or as a feedstock for the chemical industry.
Says Taarning: “In contrast, it really makes sense to use biomass as the feedstock for chemical industry. The available biomass should suffice to replace the fossil feedstocks used in the production of chemicals. The chemical characteristics of biomass and many bulk chemicals are also very similar, so the processes should be more economical than those for the conversion into fuels.”
When we do this, however, we need to diverge from the established value chains: instead of using brute force to convert these raw materials into specific platform chemicals that were originally selected because of their easy accessibility when starting from fossil resources, it would be better to use the interesting chemical characteristics already available in the biomass resources themselves and to optimize the use of favorable catalytic reaction pathways. “Through the clever selection of target chemicals it is possible to significantly increase the value added,” says Taarning. Because the development costs will be high and the first processes inefficient, it makes sense to initially concentrate on high-value products, thereby allowing for faster widespread adoption.Also, many primary products and by-products of our current biofuel industry could be interesting platform chemicals in themselves: for example, ethanol as a starting material for the production of acetic acid, ethylene, and ethylene glycol, or glycerol for conversion into acrylic acid, a polymer precursor.
“The shift from a fossil-based chemical industry to one based on biomass poses many challenges,” says Taarning, “but the possibilities are also great: to develop a more sustainable chemical industry utilizing a more versatile feedstock supply and producing products with superior properties.”
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