There is growing interest in creating novel chemical compounds from biomass that offer superior performance, economics and environmental impacts as compared to petroleum-based chemicals.  For the last decade, the bioeconomy has been focused on creating renewable chemicals that are chemically identical to petroleum products, but are derived from renewable resources.  However, time and experience has shown that it is both expensive and challenging to create replacements for petroleum-based compounds using biomass.  Creating new chemicals with novel attributes could increase the product stream from the biorefinery, as well as provide improved environmental and health impacts.

That’s according to a recent report from the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), which examines research questions needed to scale the discovery and production of new and novel biobased chemicals.

On a per-gallon basis, a petroleum refinery derives value from refining chemicals. Chemicals make up a small portion of the barrel, but provide most of the value (See Figure). Increasingly, the biofuels industry is looking towards this business model, as value-added co-products are increasingly recognized as necessary to make biofuels production viable.  In the not too distant future, biorefineries will have flexibility to produce a variety of high-value co-products, just as what occurs at the oil refinery.

Products and revenue from a barrel of oil. Courtesy of U.S. DOE. 


The report from BETO outlines several reasons why pursuing novel biobased chemicals is advantageous. They are sourced from domestic resources, support U.S. manufacturing and agricultural sectors, can help balance trade, and can be engineered for properties such as recyclability or non-toxicity.  Reduced toxicity is particularly attractive to industry in the areas of consumer care and food packaging.

In the past, researchers and the biofuels industry have focused on creating drop-in replacements for petroleum-based chemicals. But experience has shown the difficulty in creating the simpler carbon-compounds derived from petroleum using more complex organic matter, such as biomass.

However, this chemical complexity could serve as an advantage, as chemical companies are increasingly looking for new and novel compounds that can provide new properties or enhanced performance.  The chemicals industry has not developed any new petroleum-based chemicals since the 1990s. Biomass based chemicals represents a virtually untapped market potential.

According to the report, both industry and researchers have identified a need for large amounts of data on potential molecular properties of biobased chemicals.  This information would help drive federal investments in research and development and other areas of the supply chain.


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