Green Chemistry: Biofeedstocks Still Grow

Economic conditions have slowed but not stopped the drive to use renewable resources.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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An ethanol executive recently ended his state-of-the-industry assessment by quoting Winston Churchill: "If you're going through hell, keep going." Firms, large and small, are heeding that counsel in their quest for products and profits based on renewable resources. Innovations continue in feedstocks, processes and partnerships all along the value chain that extends from raw materials to the consumer market. There've been plenty of announcements of progress in green chemistry — causes for celebration in light of the promised relief from the financial and environmental costs of petroleum-based feedstocks.

The past six to nine months have made it harder to celebrate, though, given temporary advantages of much cheaper oil coupled with a near paralysis in investment and a global slowdown forcing companies and consumers to hunker down. A state-of-the-ethanol-industry report given by Bob Dinneen of the  Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), Washington, D.C., calls today's phenomena "a perfect storm" of discouragements.

He and others are quick to accentuate the positive, however. Numerous alliances of companies, academic institutions and government continue to support renewables' research and development through funding and multidisciplinary brainpower.

Government actions add to the impetus. President Barack Obama's early-2009 stimulus package awarded the Department of Energy (DOE) $16.8 billion for research projects in energy efficiency and renewable energy. In addition, it provides a menu of renewable energy incentives such as tax breaks and loan guarantees.
While Washington is offering such "carrots" to sustain momentum for wide-ranging work in these areas, it also is using some "sticks" such as the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for transportation fuels, which mandates increasing use of advanced biofuels (see sidebar Mandate Promises Economic Boost, which appears at the bottom of the article). "The RFS levels for advanced biofuels production will drive the creation of a major new industry," says the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Washington, D.C. This, in turn, will build "a foundation for future technology development and commercial growth," it adds.

Continuing Commitment
"There's still a real commitment" among forward-looking companies to develop biofeedstocks and create new cost-effective chemistry alongside transformations in the energy sector, says Ryan Gill, managing director of the  Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels (C2B2), Boulder, Colo., one public/private/academic partnership.

DuPont Biocatalyst
Figure 1. Cellulosic Ethanol Catalysts: DuPont scientist
Paul Vitennan developed biocatalysts for DDCE joint venture.
Source: DuPont.
BASF trumpets its resolve to use renewable raw materials. "We place a high priority on selecting the most sustainable resources for each application," states "Report 2008: Economic, Environmental, Social Performance." "We use renewable raw materials when they offer economic or environmental advantages… We are also developing products such as catalysts and process chemicals for the decomposition of biomass to facilitate the use of renewable raw materials." 

DuPont, Wilmington, Del., also clearly is focusing on renewables. "This country has to lead the way to an energy-secure future," stresses Uma Chowdhry, its senior vice president and chief science and technology officer. The path toward sustainability in energy and chemicals requires expertise in feedstocks, enzymes, genetics, refining and more — generally "leveraging the entire supply chain," she adds. DuPont is committed to a wide range of collaborations for "renewable technologies" research and to moving from cellulosic ethanol to biobutanol as "the next-generation biofuel."
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