Sensible use of biomass: A chemical industry based on renew

Nov 14, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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. The environmental problems related to this are known, and these resources will eventually run out. In addition to wind, water, geothermal, and solar energy, biomass is also drawing increasing attention as a renewable resource.

In an essay presented in the journal , Esben Taarning and co-workers from the company Haldor Topsoe and the Lindoe Offshore Center (Denmark) describe how a sensible transition from to a chemical industry based on biomass might look.

To date, most of the biomass used by industry has been burned to generate energy. According to the authors, in the long term this is not the optimal use. “It is also not the most sensible solution to convert biomass into fuels,” says Taarning. “In the first place, the amount of biomass available does not meet the demand for fuels; in the second, the chemical characteristics of fuels and biomass are too different, so the processes would be too complex and uneconomical.” Means of transportation should be gradually switched to batteries or fuel cells.” Says Taarning: “In contrast, it really makes sense to use biomass as the 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.”

Explore further: New, more versatile version of Geckskin: Gecko-like adhesives now useful for real world surfaces

More information: Esben Taarning, Beyond Petrochemicals: The Renewable Chemicals Industry, Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2011, 50, No. 45, 10502–10509, Permalink to the article: dx.doi.org/10.1002/anie.201102117

Related Stories

New Ways to Use Biomass

Sep 22, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Alternatives to fossil fuels and natural gas as carbon sources and fuel are in demand. Biomass could play a more significant part in the future. Researchers in the USA and China have now developed ...

Turning over a new leaf for future energy supplies

Dec 15, 2008

A global energy supply based on biomass grown to generate electricity and produce fuel is a real possibility. According to Prof. Jürgen O. Metzger from Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany and Prof. Aloys ...

Recommended for you

A greener source of polyester—cork trees

Apr 16, 2014

On the scale of earth-friendly materials, you'd be hard pressed to find two that are farther apart than polyester (not at all) and cork (very). In an unexpected twist, however, scientists are figuring out ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...