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Chemical imbalance on bio-refining

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The early optimism surrounding December’s Paris Agreement to limit global climate change was starting to unravel as it faced up to the cold, hard reality of 2016’s seemingly confused Government energy policy and rock-bottom oil prices.

Tom Anderson 900

Tom Anderson 900

It is perhaps no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry thought it necessary to publish an open letter to the Government urging clearer leadership and stable policy.

But this is not another column taking pot shots at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I want to shine a light on a different challenge that the country faces as we seek to decarbonise our economy.

Running parallel to the UK’s transition to low-carbon sources of power and heat is the equally challenging transformation taking place within the UK’s chemicals industry as it gets to grips with producing renewable products and fuels from wastes and biomass. With emissions of more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 a year, the chemicals industry is one the UK’s primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

It faces a fundamental challenge to decarbonise its operations in line with the commitments made in Paris.

MRW readers will be familiar with the advances in energy-from-waste technologies, but there are also some lesser known but game-changing technological innovations taking place to transform biomass and wastes into higher-value chemical products and advanced transport fuels.

We should not forget that biomass is a truly remarkable resource. Not only do such materials contain energy that can be harnessed to power our industries, but they also contain the chemical building blocks needed for an array of higher value chemical products.

Cellulose sugars and lignin contained within organic wastes can be refined to create a range of high-value bio-based polymers, chemicals and products, mimicking the concept of an oil refinery where crude oil is refined into different grades of chemical products and fuels.

And it is the production of these higher value products that offers greatest commercial rewards. For example, chemical products such as succinic acid, which can be produced by fermentation of sugars from agricultural wastes, commands a market price of more than £6,000 per tonne for use as an additive in the food and drink industry.

Industry analysts forecast that the global market for bio-based chemicals will exceed £360bn by 2025, with the UK accounting for a £12bn market share alone. With such potential it is no wonder that leading companies within the sector are already making inroads into this growth market.

Clean-tech company Fiberight is working on exciting projects to transform municipal solid waste into highvalue cellulosic biofuels, which then can be utilised as a renewable feedstock for the chemical industry, while technology developer Advanced Plasma Power (featured in MRW in December, see has developed its gasplasma technology to transform residue material into advanced biofuels.

Closer to home, colleagues at the European Bioenergy Research Institute have been pioneering the concept of the bio-refinery and have developed an easy-to-use online modelling tool to help businesses and entrepreneurs interrogate commercial models for producing high-value chemicals from waste.

Of course, with crude oil currently trading at around £21 a barrel, conventional wisdom suggest that the business case for substituting fossil-derived chemicals with bio-based alternatives looks weaker than it might have done a year ago. And while there is certainly truth in that assessment perhaps it misses a more important point.

Temporarily cheap oil offers no long-term solution to this challenge.

So, while the new year’s good intentions to decarbonise our economy may have faltered in the face of policy reversals and volatile oil prices, we should remain optimistic that continued innovation to produce renewable chemicals from wastes will ultimately deliver truly lasting change.

Tom Anderson is business development manager at the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI)

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