Saturday, November 12, 2011

Danish Researchers Attempt to Match Biomass Resource to Markets


It is important for healthy economies to match their resources to their markets as carefully as possible, to avoid waste, misallocations, and shortages. In the case of biomass, there is some debate among chemical engineers about the preferred suitability of biomass -- either for biofuels or for renewable chemicals. Certainly the high value chemicals market would provide a quicker payoff for a newly developing biomass to chemicals industry, which is just beginning to scale up. That is the argument of Danish researchers, who claim that the chemistry and quantity of available biomass makes it more suitable for renewable chemicals than for biofuels.
Switching to broad use of biomass for chemicals will require divergence from the established value chains, the authors say. Instead of using brute force to convert these raw materials into specific platform chemicals that were originally selected because of their easy accessibility when starting from fossil resources, it would be better to use the interesting chemical characteristics already available in the biomass resources themselves and to optimize the use of favorable catalytic reaction pathways.

Because the development costs will be high and the first processes inefficient, it makes sense to initially concentrate on high-value products, thereby allowing for faster widespread adoption. _GCC

It is also not the most sensible solution to convert biomass into fuels. In the first place, the amount of biomass available does not meet the demand for fuels; in the second, the chemical characteristics of fuels and biomass are too different, so the processes would be too complex and uneconomical.

In contrast, it really makes sense to use biomass as the feedstock for chemical industry. The available biomass should suffice to replace the fossil feedstocks used in the production of chemicals. The chemical characteristics of biomass and many bulk chemicals are also very similar, so the processes should be more economical than those for the conversion into fuels.

—Esben Taarning _GCC
Long time readers of Al Fin Energy might expect Al Fin energy analysts to agree with some points of the argument, and disagree with others. That is the case.

In the short and medium term, the Danish researchers are correct that high value chemicals are a better market to aim for than the very competitive fuels market. This is the case for all the reasons mentioned by the Danes in the article above.

In the longer term, with improved catalysts and processes -- as well as a vastly enlarged biomass production infrastructure -- biomass is likely to play an important role in the liquid fuels market. Whether that role will be to supply sugars for fermentation into hydrocarbons, or whether the biomass will be converted directly into hydrocarbons using catalysts and process heat from gas-cooled nuclear reactors, biofuels will almost certainly be ready to jump into the arena at the same time that demand for hydrocarbons will begin to drop -- sometime after the year 2020.

The coming biofuels and chemicals-from-biomass infrastructures are likely to yield lower profits than the petrofuels and petrochemicals markets have yielded. But one of the main reasons for that -- besides the diffuse nature of the bioenergy resource -- is the distributed nature of the new bioenergy infrastructure itself. This means that a lot more people will be involved, collecting more modest incomes than oil executives, but making a fair living nonetheless.

The bioenergy economy is most likely to succeed in regions such as SubSaharan Africa, large numbers of tropical islands, and other third world areas in the tropics. But bioenergy and renewable chemistry are also likely to cut out significant and viable niches in the emerging and the developed world, over time.

More interesting work from some of the same authors

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