Biobased products are products that are wholly or partly derived from materials of biological origin, excluding materials embedded in geological formations and/or fossilised (CEN). They are derived from biomass, typically agricultural or forestry raw materials and provide an alternative to conventional fossil derived products. Specifically for the purposes of the USDA BioPreferred program, biobased products do not include food, animal feed, or fuel.
Global biobased chemical and polymer production (excluding biofuels) is over 50 million tonnes. Notable examples of biobased chemicals include non-food starch, cellulose fibres and cellulose derivatives, tall oils, fatty acid derivatives such as surfactants and fermentation products e.g. ethanol, lactic acid, citric acid and many amino acids.
However, the majority of organic chemicals and polymers are still derived from fossil-based feedstock, predominantly oil and gas. Global petrochemical production of chemicals and polymers is over 330 million tonnes. Primary output is dominated by a small number of key building blocks, namely methanol, ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, and xylene. These building blocks are mainly converted to polymers and plastics but they are also converted to a staggering number of different fine and specialty chemicals with specific functions and attributes.
From a technical point of view, almost all industrial materials made from fossil resources could be substituted by their biobased counterparts. However, the cost of biobased production in many cases exceeds the cost of petrochemical production. Also, new products must be proven to perform at least as well as the petrochemical equivalent they are substituting and need to have a lower environmental impact.
Historically, biobased chemical producers have targeted high value fine or specialty chemicals markets, often where specific functionality played an important role. The historic low price of crude oil acted as barrier to biobased commodity chemical production and producers focused on the specific attributes of bio-based chemicals, such as their complex structure to justify production costs. The recent volatility of oil prices, the consumer demand for environmentally friendly products, population growth, and the climate impact of using non-renewable resources have now opened new windows of opportunity for biobased chemicals and polymers.
Industry is increasingly viewing chemical and polymer production from renewable resources as an attractive area for investment. Biobased products can meet all forms of circular thinking from reuse to closed and open loop recycling. It can be viewed as an enabler for an optimised circular economy beyond the current largely linear, fossil based economy.
A range of technologies are employed to produce biobased chemicals. Chemical processing is used to produce fatty acid derivatives e.g. through metathesis, 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid and other furan derivatives or glycerol derived products including epichlorohydrin and 1,2-propanediol.
Increasingly, innovation in industrial biotechnology is creating new manufacturing opportunities for the chemical industry. Fermentation based processes now provide viable routes to many chemicals including;
- ethanol and its derivatives ethylene, ethylene oxide, ethylene glycol
- succinic acid
- and many speciality chemicals (e.g. farnescene, itaconic acid, nootkatone)
The development of the biobased chemicals sector goes hand in hand with the development of the biobased plastics (bioplastics) industry. Biobased plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) have growing markets and applications.
Keep up to date
The biobased chemicals and plastics sector is fast moving. NNFCC maintains its knowledge of the sector through its industrial contacts and its position on key public working groups.
Current working groups include;
For reports and our monthly review of news from the bio-based products sector, see our publications store.