Worldwide News CAUGHT IN THE FOSSIL TRAP? The US chemical industry thrives on shale gas, coal chemistry is celebrating a comeback in China. Where does this leave visions of a bio-based chemical industry on a broad range? PROF. DR. KURT WAGEMANN AND DR. KATHRIN RÜBBERDT For the first time in the history of the chemical industry, the raw material base is not changing globally, but becoming differentiated according to region. As BASF Vice Chairman Martin Brudermüller pointed out at the biannual DECHEMA and ProcessNet conference, while shale gas acts as a game changer in the U.S., China focuses on coal, South America aims to make use of its renewable resources, while traditional oil and gas remain a major raw material source in Europe. Global companies adapt to these regional developments by broadening the range of their technologies, making use of whatever is available on the regional market. For apologists of a completely biobased future, this must appear as a severe drawback. Why should companies invest in technologies to produce bulk chemicals such as ethylene or propylene from biomass when they are available cheaply and in abundance from ethane crackers and via propane dehydrogenation? Why develop bio-based pathways to commodities when the well-established and optimized highways from petrochemicals remain open? On closer analysis, however, there is no need to ring bioeconomy’s death bell even before its proper birth. On the contrary, the shift in the raw material base may result in new opportunities for biobased processes. Bio-based ethylene and propylene will not be competitive in the foreseeable future, but the production of functionalized molecules such as lactic acid or propane diols from biomass is very attractive. The increasing use of shale gas leads to a shortage of C4 and higher hydrocarbons as well as aromatics. The effects are already visible: Over the last months, massive investments in plants for the bio-based production of butanediols and succinic acid have been announced, and research efforts in this make use of the functionalities provided — an effect we see already today in pharmaceuticals or cosmetics, where the chemical total synthesis of active ingredients has been replaced by biotechnological processes on a broad range. The same applies for vitamins, enzymes, but also more “technical” products such as surfactants or bioplastics. Is the bioeconomy caught in the fossil trap? No. The way out, however, is not along the well-trod synthetic pathways of the past, but along new, innovative routes that lead to improved products. Convincing consumers by performance rather than relying on their ecological conscience is the key to establishing biobased products on a large scale. Bioeconomy will not come as a revolution. But we are already in the middle of the bioeconomy evolution. n area seem to have increased significantly. While access to the “simple” aromatics xylene and phenol still remains a largely unsolved challenge for bio-based routes, there exists in principle an attractive route to terephthalic acid from carbohydrates via 5-hydroxy-methyl-furfural. Overall, however, while the debate and the competition go on, it becomes even more obvious that the best opportunity for a bioeconomy in the short and midterm lies not in providing drop-ins for well-established and cheap products from the petrochemical age. Its biggest chance is to develop products and solutions that are new, better and cheaper than their fossil ancestors. Instead of defunctionalizing complex molecules to mimic the bottom-up building of traditional chemistry, new products should 12 A special edition from PROCESS Picture: Fotolia - Brian Jackson K. Wagemann is Executive Director and K. Rübberdt is Head of Biotechnology, DECHEMA e.V. → Panel Discussion at ACHEMA 2015 A panel discussion at ACHEMA 2015 will draw the spotlight on the effects of shale gas on the bioeconomy on Tuesday, June 16. Find more information at www.achema.de in spring 2015.
ACHEMA Worldwide News 2/2014
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