Sunday, July 24, 2011

Plastics from Bio-Feedstocks Should Dampen Peak Oil Frenzy

Update: Technology Review has an article discussing this project. The claim is made in the article that production costs for polyethylene from sugar cane are comparable to costs for production from petroleum. As economical substitutes for petroleum come on line for most of the uses for petroleum, peak oil panic increasingly appears to be a pathology.
At a conference in Berlin, Germany in October organized by the European Bioplastics trade group, and attended by Modern Plastics, Rui Chemmes, director of Braskem’s PE operations, said the ethanol-based polyethylene has exactly the same characteristics as PE derived from petroleum. Plus, he added, it is nine times as efficient to derive ethanol from sugarcane as from corn, and four-and-a-half times as efficient compared to ethanol derived from sugar beets. “Sugarcane is a 4m-high plant” that grows quickly and with little assistance, he explained. Other environmental benefits include its work as “a real vacuum cleaner of carbon dioxide.” One pound of petroleum-based PE releases 2.5 kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, he said, whereas the same amount of sugarcane-based PE captures that same amount of the gas. _PlasticsToday
If modern industry continues learning to produce high value chemicals, plastics, and other materials from biomass and other biologically derived feedstocks such as bio-sugars, the move from petroleum to bio-based materials will become easier. One of the many biological substitutions being made for petroleum is in making polyethylene from bio-ethanol. Dow Chemical and Matsui are partnering for such a project in Brazil, using cane sugar as feedstock.
Dow Chemical is joining forces with Japanese trading powerhouse Mitsui to build the largest integrated bioplastics production plant in the world.

Construction on the first phase of the project in Brazil -- a 190,000 metric tons-per-year ethanol mill -- is expected to begin this fall. Ethanol will be made from sugar cane grown on estates already owned by Dow in Santa Vitória, Brazil. In the first phase of the collaboration, Mitsui is buying half ownership of the sugar cane plantation at a cost of $200 million, according to Reuters. In the next phase, starting in 2012, Dow and Mitsui will build a polyethylene plant. _DN

The move from a petroleum based economy will take time, work, and resources. But the substitution process is already underway, and will become easier as the technologies are improved.

Chemicals and plastics from bio feedstocks will have to compete in the marketplace with materials made from petroleum, gas, and coal feedstocks. The economic picture will change over time, giving the advantage to one feedstock over others. The wise society will broaden its choices so as to make substitutions easier.



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