Biomass, a source of life for products
Plant-based chemistry uses biomass resources as an alternative to fossil resources for the manufacturing of products and materials.
Plant-based chemistry is a branch of chemistry in which biomass wholly or partially replaces fossil resources (oil, natural gas and coal) to manufacture products.
- agricultural products;
- cellulosic biomass (forest or agricultural);
- aquatic and marine biomass;
- waste and sub-products.
- organisms, animals, etc.
Various types of processing exist to use these biomasses:
- oleochemistry, a well-established industrial model, which produces oils (esters), fatty acids, fatty alcohols and glycerine from vegetable and animal oils. Oleochemical products can be used, for example, as surfactants, lubricants and liquid resins (for paints, inks, varnishes and adhesives);
- sugar chemistry which enables plant sugars (glucose, starch and its derivatives and wood-based cellulose) to be used to manufacture organic alcohols or acids by biological or biotechnological means and by chemical conversion;
- thermochemistry which enables plant materials to be converted into synthetic gas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen), which can serve as a basis for chemical and biological transformations to produce liquid fuels, methanol, ammonia or ranges of synthetic products;
- the mechanical approach which attempts to use the whole plant by limiting the processing steps. It is currently used to process fibres and manufacture composite materials or certain biodegradable packaging;
- wood chemistry: lignin, which is a natural amorphous polymer containing a lot of aromatic molecules, can be processed by thermochemistry but can also be used to manufacture macromolecules or aromatics.
It is thus possible to use biomass to manufacture biobased products and materials of varying degrees of sophistication, such as:
- chemical intermediates for commodities and specialities (which serve as a basis for the production of numerous intermediate and manufactured products);
- performance chemical products;
- materials: polymers and composites;
- speciality or fine chemical products.
Plant-based chemistry can also use co-products, i.e. the co-products of other industries such as paper pulp production, which has hitherto been unexploited.
The search for optimum use of biomass in an integrated system has led to the creation of biorefineries. Biorefineries represent an industrial tool which, on a given site, isolates, processes and reclaims each component of the biomass. According to the biorefinery concept, the biomass must be transformed and valorised. In Europe, there are 34 biorefineries.
However, the ACDV’s industrial players adhere to an essential principle: plant-based chemistry can develop only within a framework of overall balance with conventional uses of plant-based resources, primarily human and animal nutrition.
The main players in the plant-based chemistry value chain
- Agricultural companies producing the plant resource
- Companies processing biomass (biorefiners)
- Biotechnologists who provide solutions for other players, biorefiners and chemists.
- Chemists and biochemists
All of these are represented in the ACDV.
The ACDV’s members include no less than six competitiveness clusters: Axelera, Fibres-Energivie, Industries & Agro-Ressources (IAR), Matikem, Pass and Xylofutur. A source of innovative projects, competitive clusters play an essential role which complements the ACDV’s actions
A wide variety of biobased products
Plant-based chemical intermediates (biobased products) are used in numerous sectors such as detergents, cosmetics, the automobile industry, aviation, packaging, plastics manufacturing, construction and paints. They represent a worldwide market evaluated at 130 billion Euros (source: McKinsey study, 2011).
There are several major families of biobased products and materials:
- Commodity polymers (polyethylene, PLA, etc.)
- Speciality polymers and resins (polyamides, polyesters, phenolic resins, epoxy resins, polyurethanes, etc.)
- Other organic chemicals (fatty alcohol, fatty acid, carboxylic acid, terpenic derivatives, etc.)
- Industrial and consumer speciality chemicals (phytopharmaceuticals, paint, varnish, ink, glue, essential oils, etc.)
- Soaps, perfumes and cleaning products (surfactants, cosmetic ingredients, etc.)
The list of mass-consumption biobased products, i.e. products containing biobased components, is long. It includes in particular:
- Plastics (plastic bags, packaging, stretch film, bin bags, freezer bags, etc.);
- Beauty products and personal hygiene products;
- Household products – detergents;
- Packaging (cardboard, food trays, etc.);
- Sports shoes
- Medicines (glucose for intravenous infusions, tablet coatings, etc.).
In the food industry, molecules extracted or derived from plants are also used for the functions they contribute to products: these include moistening, texturising, emulsifying, fluidising and other molecules.
All biobased products must meet technical and environmental performance requirements while at the same time contributing additional properties.
Not to be confused…
There are biobased products which are biodegradable and others which are not.
A material is said to be biodegradable if it can, under the action of living organisms (bacteria, fungi, algae, etc.) break down into various elements without harmful effects for the environment.