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Hydrocarbons 3.0 – European Union decides to focus on bioeconomy

Industry is being greened. The EU has put in place schemes to boost the bioeconomy; Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands are working hard on bioeconomy strategies. Even regional stakeholders are developing concepts aimed at supporting the bioeconomy. Things are moving in the right direction.

Everybody associates the term raw materials with oil and gas, which are the foundation of many economies. Some countries produce and sell oil and gas, others process them into fuels, building materials, plastics, varnishes or basic chemicals, for example. However, using oil and gas as raw materials has a more precise implication. Oil and gas are hydrocarbons, molecules consisting of carbon and hydrogen: the hidden heroes of the industrial era.

Most industrially used hydrocarbons are derived from fossil resources - oil and gas. However, this situation is set to change if a number of industrialised countries and the European Union (EU) achieve what they are setting out to achieve: in a few centuries’ time, fossil hydrocarbons will not be the only raw materials that form the basis of industrial production. The plan is to utilise biomass to a growing extent as a source of organic compounds for polymer chemistry and hence the production of innumerable bulk articles and top-quality industrial products. The depletion of fossil resources requires a shift towards a greener industry, in other words a bioeconomy, which is the specialist term for the technology and economic concept that relies more heavily on the use of renewable biological resources and organic residual materials.

From the air into the plant

Every year, huge quantities of biomass grow on land and in water. © Bächtle

Carbon constitutes around 50% of global plant biomass. Every year, plants produce several tons of biomass, and hence huge amounts of hydrocarbons. In order to do this, plants use around 130 billion tons of carbon which they assimilate in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Nature is therefore rich in carbon compounds. However, this is not something to get euphoric about, as not all the biomass produced by a plant can be used for industrial applications. Some of it needs to remain in the ecosystem. Nevertheless, there remains a plethora of possibilities for the industrial utilisation of biomass. 

Funding priority: renewable biological materials

The term bioeconomy is relatively new. In its 2013 work programmes, the EU gives the following definition: the term bioeconomy includes all industries and branches of economy that produce, manage or otherwise harness biological resources, such as agriculture, food, fishing and other marine resources, forestry, as well as related services, supply or consumer industries.

Under the current 7th Framework Programme (FP7), the EU is calling for proposals related to bioeconomy research and innovation. As bioeconomy also implies keeping transport pathways as short as possible and monitoring a product’s ecobalance, the objective is to process raw materials as close as possible to the location where they are grown or harvested. This is why the EU sees a huge necessity for regional bioeconomy concepts, which are the concepts being funded under the EU’s current FP7 programme (see also: 7FP, KBBE.2013.3.3-02: Bioeconomy and bioregions; Call: FP7-KBBE-2013-7). The work programme states: “A bioeconomy can contribute to the development of rural areas, coastal areas and industrial areas by improving the sustainable utilisation of natural and industrial raw materials.” This can be seen as a clear sign that the EU attaches great significance to decentralisation in the energy and raw material sectors. It can be safely assumed that bioeconomy-related projects will also be accorded major importance in “Horizon 2020”, the successor to FP7.

The tendency to develop bioeconomy concepts on a regional level is already apparent in Germany, particularly in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia. In autumn 2010, RWTH Aachen University, the universities of Bonn and Düsseldorf and Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Centre) established a scientific centre of competence that conducts research for a sustainable bioeconomy – the Bioeconomy Science Centre (BioSC). The objective of the BioSC is to address topics and issues contributing to a sustainable, environmentally-friendly economy based on the use of renewable resources.

New value-added materials

Wood waste from a sawmill – valuable biomass © Bächtle

A bioeconomy cannot function without resource efficiency. This requires residual and waste material to be integrated into production processes. The utilisation of plant parts or plant substances that are not currently being used must become more effective. To date, most plant remains and residual plant substances are combusted, i.e. turned into energy. The new approach requires that residual plant materials are fed back into production processes and are only combusted if they can no longer be converted into value-added products and materials. 

Using waste in the sense of a bioeconomically motivated resource efficiency goes far beyond traditional recycling. Waste is valuable material and will increasingly be used as such. This will eventually lead to a reduction in quantities of waste as it is converted into valuable materials. The macromolecular components of a building block, workpiece or product will go through utilisation cascades. The oven is the end of the process. 

This approach is described in detail in a report entitled “Sustainable Bioeconomy, Potential, Challenges, Opportunities in Finland”, which was prepared on behalf of the Finnish government: “The bioeconomy strives to integrate the biomass flows of different industries in such a way that one industry’s waste or emissions become another industry’s raw material. This approach is a means of creating effective material loops and combat the problems of climate change and resource depletion.” Resource efficiency and bioeconomy are therefore inextricably linked.  

Biorefineries – the technological basis of the bioeconomy

Biorefinery model. It is still unclear how a refinery will finally look like. © Fraunhofer-Umsicht

Biomass consists mainly of lignin, lignocellulose and cellulose. These basic polymers contain large quantities of sugar, and in the case of lignin, complex alcohols. Traditional methods are not suited to using these components.

Biomass can be quite intractable when it comes to isolating its basic components. New procedures and a well thought-out system of mechanical, chemical and biotechnological processing steps are required for making compounds found in wood, bark, leaves, stalks and kitchen waste accessible for chemical syntheses. The complex facilities that will in future be used for the conversion of biomass for the production of power, fuel and value-added chemicals are known as biorefineries. 

However bioeconomy concepts can only be turned into reality if biorefineries reach an industrial scale and by making optimal use of the biomass and organic raw material containing waste streams generated during farming, harvesting and processing. So-called advanced biorefineries are able to process different types of biomass and their components and produce a broad range of different products. 

Perception increases

Although the idea of the “biorefinery” is still in its infancy for the most part, it is currently undergoing rapid development. The 2011 VDI report entitled “Rohstoff der Zukunft für die chemische Industrie” (Raw material of the future for the chemical industry) found that only a few papers had been published on the issue up until 2003, but that the number increased to more than 200 in 2010.

Economists have also since discovered the issue: a new report from analysts at the American consulting company Pike Research concludes that around 170 billion dollars worldwide will be invested in biorefinery construction from 2012 to 2022. Nearly 1800 new biorefineries will be commissioned during this time. Of those, 925 will be advanced biorefineries capable of converting non-food feedstocks into a broad range of end products. The global market for advanced biorefineries currently stands at 3.9 billion dollars per year, or less than 5 percent of the conventional biorefinery market.

The aforementioned VDI report also focuses on the role of biorefinery concepts for the chemical industry. The report presents 26 so-called platform chemicals. Platform chemicals are compounds that are essential in the process chains of the chemical industry for their role as building blocks for numerous chemical intermediates and end products. The VDI report predicts a strong developmental dynamics for eleven of these platform chemicals, including succinic acid, fumaric acid and 1,4-butandiole. The commercial success of biorefineries very much depends on whether these chemicals can be transformed into platform chemicals and used in large-scale industrial processes.

Bioeconomy in Europe – the starting point is quite good

In Brittany, sea algae are collected, dried and sold to the cosmetics industry. © Bächtle

The EU bioeconomy already has a turnover of nearly €2 trillion and employs more than 22 million people, accounting for 9% of total employment in the EU. 

However, this economic success is only one of several reasons why the EU has taken the decision to continue to support bioeconomy concepts in the future. Another reason is that the EU estimates that bioeconomy-related investment in knowledge and technology will soon generate added value and create new jobs. The EU predicts that every euro invested in bioeconomy research and innovation will be worth about €10 in 2025.

In addition to funding bioeconomy research, innovation and entrepreneurial success, there are two more parameters in the EU that assist Europe in making the transition to a resource efficient society: renewable biological resources and technology. Over 80 percent of the EU’s land is used for agriculture and forestry. In addition, the EU fishing industry is one of the largest in the world. The EU is largely independent with regard to many agricultural, forestry and fishery products. It is able to provide large quantities of renewable raw materials for a bioeconomy.

In addition, the EU has an efficient and well-developed research and technology landscape, which has led to the emergence of many well- established and even global companies. Most of these companies are active in the food, cellulose, paper, chemistry and petrochemical sectors.

Only a few impetuses

Bioeconomy is a key future topic. However, the number of countries committed to it is still relatively low. Germany is one of the first countries to launch large-scale measures to support a future bioeconomy. As part of the National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030, the German government will support research and development to the tune of 2.4 billion euros. Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have also drafted their own bioeconomy strategies and action plans. Canada, China, South Africa and the USA have come up with or are working on bioeconomy strategies. In April 2012, the US government published its “National Bioeconomy Blueprint”, which outlines five strategic objectives for a bioeconomy. The Blueprint announced that under the ‘BioPreferred Programme’ the research and commercialisation of biological processes “will be expanded to become one of the main drivers of the American economy and US innovation.”

At present, American biotechnology companies achieve a turnover of around 167 billion dollars per year through the utilisation of green, red and white biotechnology. By supporting bioeconomy research and innovation, the American government aims to strengthen the economic value of biotechnology by developing new methods and improving existing methods that take into account the utilisation of waste and residual material.

New heroes

The efforts being undertaken by some countries including funding measures and strategic plans show that governments have recognised the huge economic potential of moving away from petrochemical-based towards bio-based processes. Fossil hydrocarbons made the industrial era possible. However, they are the heroes of the past; the future belongs to others.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/hydrocarbons-3-0-european-union-decides-to-focus-on-bioeconomy