French IAR Cluster publishes an International overview of biobased chemical building blocks. In recent years, bio-based industries have gone through a rapid technological and economic development. Several studies were published on this topic but most of them were focusing on market analysis and projections. Only a few were dedicated to technological developments, production capacities or stakeholders mapping.
In “Top value Added Chemicals From Biomass” published in 2004 by the US Department of Energy (DOE), the American administration demonstrated the need to further develop and use industrial biotechnology to produce bio-based chemicals in sustainable economic conditions. At the time, most of the analysis was based on technological and economic prospections as bio-based industries were only emerging. Ten years after, a large number of technological developments and investments have been made.
With “International overview of bio-based chemical building blocks – 10 years evolution decrypted”, the IAR Cluster publishes one of the very few integrated paper looking at the same time at biomass, technological, production and value chain developments over the past ten years combined with a detailed investigation of the investment drivers for more than 50 chemical intermediates and an analysis of the stakeholders and production capacities in this field.
Though several technological and economic barriers remain, industrial biotechnology has met many promises and a number of molecules are today produced using fermentation or enzymatic synthesis. Companies have also been able to adapt and fully exploit the microbial diversity (either directly or indirectly via genetic engineering) to produce intermediates with higher performances: improved technical performances or development of new functionalities leading to new applications; reduction of production costs; lower environmental footprint and; low toxicological and eco-toxicological impact.
Since 2007, the number of commercial scale production capacities for bio-based chemicals has grown significantly and the number of intermediates introduced on the market has reached an average path of 2 per years. Over the past ten years, the production capacities for bio-based chemistry sector have grown faster than the ones for oil-based chemistry with more than 8% of annual growth.
Biorefineries are a central corner of bio-based industries. They are essential when it comes to the full valorization of every biomass fraction. Through a variety of processes, renewable resources, co and by-products are valorized into a diversified portfolio of products (food, intermediates, materials, energy, etc.). While industrial biotechnology processes represent the highest share of development in production units, chemical processes remain essential for the production of certain intermediates. Due to its high energy consumption, thermochemical processes are rarely used compared to the previous two ways. For a large number of the 52 molecules studied in the IAR Cluster’s paper, several processes have been developed without any prevailing.
Drivers for industrial investments are numerous and very much depends on the chemical intermediates. While investments in the production of 1,4-butanediol are driven by the increased cost of oil-based 1,4-butanediol, other such investments in the production of isosorbide, sebacic acid or L-methionine are driven by the new technical performances that they can bring. The price of oil also remains a key factor for industry to invest in bio-based alternatives though investments in production plants for high added value chemicals will suffer less from the current oil price.
Collaboration is essential for industry, investors and others stakeholders to enter on the bio-based market as it allows to share risks and to grant access to complementary skills which are difficult to develop internally. While agro-industries generally look for partnerships upstream in the value chain, e.g. the chemical industry, in order to valorize their knowledge in primary transformation, chemical industries are looking for alternative feedstock which may better answer their clients’ needs looking for more sustainable solutions.
Some agro-industries also position themselves closer to the market such as Cargill when it established NatureWorks for the production of PLA. For industrial biotech companies, two business models mostly exist. On the one hand, the licensing of technologies developed but it requires to be able to constantly develop new innovation in order to expand the company. On the other hand, the production, in-house, of chemical intermediates coming out of the company pipeline. This last option is often only possible through partnerships with large established industries.