More use of bio-based chemicals for manufacturing
“As the process technologies for these chemicals evolve, the gap between bio-based and fossil-fuel based production costs is shrinking,” Hackett said “The key is that, increasingly, processes based on renewable starting materials provide a critical alternative source of “on-purpose” production for certain chemicals that are in short supply—like butadiene. Tire and rubber producers, in particular, want to ensure stable long-term supplies of the key chemical precursors for their products, and bio-based chemicals have the potential to address that need along with offering greater price stability.”
In addition to supply chain considerations, Hackett said, consumer demand and corporate sustainability initiatives are driving the increased use of bio-based chemicals. Employing bio-based chemicals helps manufacturers respond to consumer demand for more sustainable products, and it supports the manufacturer’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Bio-based chemicals usually have lower cradle-to-gate greenhouse gas emissions than their fossil-fuel-based counterparts.
“Nonetheless,” Hackett noted, “economics has a significant impact on demand. Cost and performance considerations continue to outweigh sustainability in most corporate purchasing decisions. Some manufacturers are willing to pay a premium for the sustainability benefits and customer appeal, but performance of these renewable chemicals has to equal that of their fossil-fuel based equivalents.”
Since these bio-based chemicals are derived from agricultural products, the value chain for the bio-based chemicals sector differs significantly from that of the chemical industry, Hackett said. She added that non-traditional players – notably industrial biotechnology firms and start-up companies with focused expertise in chemical catalysis – are emerging as chemical producers. In many cases, she said, these companies are partnering with established agricultural processors and chemical manufacturers to gain access to capital, fermentation or chemical processing expertise, proprietary technology, or feedstocks.
Natural fats and oils have, for many years, served as feedstocks for fatty acids and fatty alcohols; starches and sugars are well established starting materials for ethanol, lactic acid and sorbitol. More recently, plant-derived feedstocks have emerged as economically viable starting materials for commodity chemicals such as butanediol, isoprene and para-xylene, as well as for novel chemicals such as 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid and isosorbide.
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