Renewable Feedstocks are in the Bag

Chemical firms show growing interest in bio-based production.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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The company is aggressively pursuing bio-based products , says Erin O’Driscoll, director of Dow’s Biosciences team. The pieces are fitting together, but Dow isn’t rushing headlong into any and every opportunity with renewables, she adds.
Opportunities may lead to new products, but these still should fit with the company’s existing businesses; they also should offer differentiated value propositions and must make sense in terms of expected market growth. Other factors include the raw material supply in the place where a project is being considered and the suitability of the conversion technology. Replacement of petroleum-based feedstocks with bio-based feedstocks is more likely to occur at new plants being planned to meet growing demand and less likely if retrofitting is involved. “Every project has to compete” on the basis of good business sense, O’Driscoll stresses.

The Business Case
More and more companies are confronting decisions about biofeedstock projects and the role that renewables will play in their business planning, notes Mike Mendez, business consultant with AspenTech, Burlington, Mass., a supplier of software and services to process industries. The equations for determining the business sense of a given project can get very complicated. Perspectives differ on where in the pipeline — with the feedstock itself, in the fermentation step or in other steps in the pathways toward intermediates and final products — renewables make the most sense. There have been questions about food supply versus fuel supply, governmental policies, socioeconomic trends, and about whether the “green” technologies really use less energy or have a smaller environmental footprint. But the answers are emerging, at least on the macro scale, he says.

“I’m confident we will make fuels from biomass,” declares Mendez. Breakthroughs in fuels will unleash even more breakthroughs in chemical feedstocks. “There are brand new industries being created,” he says. “There’s a lot of momentum being generated.”
In such an environment of change, chemists and engineers today need to be both reflective and responsive, says Hunt. The reflection can come through various channels, including the principles of green chemistry — one of which is the use of renewable feedstocks. But responsiveness is important, too, she stresses. Companies have to “think, plan, and do” despite the complexity and uncertainty, acting in the context of the unique circumstances of each site and project but also in the light of general principles of good business sense.

“What’s different now is the traction,” she concludes. Companies are “taking it to the next level.” She refers to the pointillistic style of painting where countless dots of different colors appear as a picture when viewed as a whole. “The difference is not doing it in a pointillist way, but rather doing it in a strategic way,” says Hunt.

 

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