Shifting Towards a Bio-Based Economy

The evolution of industry is shifting towards products derived from bio-based polymers which are changing the world's economy towards a bio-based one.

Why bio-based?

The capability to use biomass, like agricultural crops, trees and algae to generate industrial matter has begun to transform the polymer, consumer product, cosmetic and chemical industries.

Products made by petroleum are in nearly everything that we use today, from transportation fuels to feedstock for synthetic materials, plastics and chemicals. Bio-based materials can be transformed into bio-polymers that are derived from plant cellulose, starches and proteins. Replacing petroleum will help eliminate the production of industrial waste. There is an unlimited range of bio-based materials that can be made into bio-polymer, which can be produced through many processes including genetic modification of plants, starch conversion or microbial conversion. 

Starch has been the primary commercial bio-polymer, and corn byproducts has been the primary feedstock. For every 2.5 pounds of corn 1 pound of polylactic acid (PLA) is produced, according to Sustainability Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC). NatureWorks, owned by Cargill, is the largest bio-polymer PLA producer to have great success embedding it into their production. Bio-based materials have positive impacts for companies since it is a ‘greener’ method of production, improves performance of manufacturing and is easier for the process of manufacturing, acknowledged Jennie Lynch, a Research Associate in Bio-Based Materials and Chemicals at Lux Research Inc

Companies Using Bio-Polymers

ADM Amyris Avantium* BASF
Biosynthetic Cereplast Coca-Cola* DUPont
Eastman LEGO®* Metabolix NatureWorks*
Newlight's Technology* Novamente Polargruppen Procter & Gamble
*Companies featured in this article

Bio-based Materials Replacing Conventional Plastics

Figure 1. The endless cycle of bio-plastics diminishes production of industrial waste by manufacturing a material that becomes organic waste when disposed of. Info-graphic by Thomas Figure 1. The endless cycle of bioplastics diminishes production of industrial waste by manufacturing a material that becomes organic waste when disposed of.  Info-graphic by Thomas Cairns.Cairns

Bio-based materials have become prominent in bio-plastics and plastic replacements, as noted by Ms. Lynch.

For example, LEGO and Coca-Cola are gearing towards making their plastic products entirely from renewable materials, thereby avoiding the use of petroleum based polymers and plastics in their products. LEGO’s company goal is to replace the petrochemical-based polymers, while taking steps towards sustainable raw materials by 2030. Coca-Cola has created PET plastic bottles made from entirely renewable materials. The company is taking steps to shift from the use of fossil fuels, according to bio-plastics MAGAZINE.

Not only are bio-plastics promising growth, Ms. Lynch also said that PTF/PEF (bio-based polymers) are slowly becoming a replacement for PTA (a purified version of polyester). An example of this conversion taking place is with the Netherland’s company Avantium, which developed a plant based material called FDCA, a product that can be used for PEF in bottles, films and fibers.

Thermoplastics

Another company that has made advances is Newlight’s Technology, the world’s first commercially-scaled carbon capture technology (Figure 2). Newlight has made great progress towards a bio-based economy to produce high performance thermoplastics from air and methane emissions, called AirCarbon. This plastic produced is as strong as oil-based plastics and is significantly less expensive, confirmed by an article by Smithsonian.com.  The science behind AirCarbon has existed for decades --converting methane into thermoplastic polymers -- but the cost outweighed the polymers produced. In the beginning, the cost to produce such polymers was 2-3 times higher than the cost to produce oil-based plastics. Since the biocatalysts were ‘self-limiting’ the manufacturing of polymers would halt once the bio-catalyst hit its maximum yield which made production expensive. However, over the progression of 10 years, Newlight’s breakthrough is a new bio-catalyst that avoids ‘turning itself off’.  This has made the company distinctive since they are pursuing their mission to replace the need for oil-based plastics with greenhouse gas plastics on a global scale. With such advancements taken place, Newlight hopes that AirCarbon will cause a paradigm shift for the world to start thinking of greenhouse gas emissions as a raw material leading to the manufacturing of products with:

Figure 2. Newlight's process split into 3 steps

  • The highest quality

  • Most cost advantage

  • The utmost sustainable material

Figure 2Newlight's process split into 3 steps

The company is currently taking steps towards developing their AirCarbon facilities near locations where large amount of carbon is emitted regularly, like farms and landfills. AirCarbon has been used in 75 applications including chairs from the company KI (Figure 3), cell phone cases from Sprint and bags from Dell. Currently, they are working with 60 

Figure 3. Company KI’s chair made from Newlight’s AirCarbon material

 Figure 3. Company KI’s chairs made from Newlight’s AirCarbon material

Fortune 500 companies to begin the production of various products ranging from automotive applications to electronic components in U.S., Europe and Asia. Economically, Newlight’s bio-catalyst is able to produce 9 kilograms of polymer for every kilogram of bio-catalyst made. This is 9 times more material that is being made for the same input from their previous options. This fact enables Newlight to manufacture at a price point that will reflect double-digit reduction, in comparison to the cost to the product plastics from oil. 

Impact of Regulations

American regulations to enforce bio-based materials for production is beginning to make progress. Since this type of production is relatively new to America, the establishment of rules is still in progress. For example, Iowa provides’ tax breaks to producers of biochemical and bio-based material industries. However, France, Canada and several European countries have been thriving by embedding regulations to enforce environmental industries. In Europe, the industry is expected to grow 12.3% by 2015, then 22% by 2020 with a compound annual growth rate of close to 20%, noted by the European Commission. The experts of the European Commission suggest:

    • Monitoring and supporting the development of the policy framework

    • Proposing demand-side industrial policy actions conducive to the market uptake of bio-based products and processes

    • Mapping bio-based products and relevant bio-economy related activities

      • Exchanging of good practices regionally, nationally and internationally

    ​In America, the start of enforcing national regulations alongside the growth of incentives for companies will support more than just the regeneration of the environment. Such measures help struggling agricultural sectors, develop production efficiency, and advance the quality of manufactured goods. Gearing towards a bio-based economy is the future that will help the US compete with the world’s current environmental advancements.

    Industry Megatrends Now and in the Future 

    Bio-Plastics have multiple advantages, aside from lowered carbon output.  They include:                      

    • Improved performance of bio-polymers and bio-plastics production          

    • Industrial lubricants and motor oil​ advances through bio-based lubricants

    • Improved consumer market through the production of the personal care and cosmetic market

     

    Info-graphic by Thomas Cairns

    Taking a step towards biomass -- away from petroleum --  helps people and the world we live in. Products made from biomass diminish the production of greenhouse gases, use less energy and decrease toxic pollutants. When compared to products made from fossil fuels, biofuels produce healthier air, water and land for future generations, according to the SBC. With less toxins in the atmosphere, industries will decrease their contribution to climate change.

    As the cost of petroleum increases the use of bio-based materials, they have become more appealing as an option for companies. A bio-based economy has the ability to increase the demand for agricultural waste and forest-based feedstock, which offers a new resource-based economic development opportunities for farmers, rural communities and manufacturing sectors. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted an economic impact analysis of the U.S. bio-based products industry, which provides evidence in Figure 4. 

     
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