15 Oktober 2015

An interview with CEFIC and Evonik on the future for biobased and chemistry

Interview with Pierre Barthelemy, CEFIC and Henrike Gebhardt, Evonik

Some companies within the EU chemicals industry sector have been wary of considering a shift towards biobased. Do you see this approach changing?

PB: The chemical industry regards the developments in the bio-based economy as one of the opportunities for innovation towards more sustainable products.  We have to be careful that “bio-based” is not per definition more sustainable than “fossil-based”: there needs to be an evaluation of the sustainability of the chemical industry’s products and processes based on complete LCA analyses and taking into account the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, economic and social).  Considering bio-based feedstocks is a priority for the chemical industry but it is on an equal footing with fossil-based feedstocks.  Different companies operating in different segments of the industry, in different value chains, with different products, may draw different conclusions with regard to the most suitable feedstock.  If you consider the chemical industry globally, the bioeconomy is taken quite seriously.  It is an opportunity that the chemical industry must consider in addition to  other  available options to optimize its development. A study made by Cefic in 2014 indicated that close to 10% of the total carbon-containing feedstock used by the European chemical industry today already has a bio-based origin.  It will grow but developing a new process or changing an existing process in the chemical industry takes time.

HG: In my view, currently most of the major chemicals companies recognize the innovative potential of the feedstock shift for the development of novel chemicals and efficient production processes. Furthermore, the chemicals industry realizes that bio-based raw materials can make a significant contribution to the reduction of the environmental footprint.

What would help more of the EU chemicals industry increase their market share of renewable feedstocks?  What measures do you think are most needed to encourage this trend?

PB: The chemical industry is capital intensive and has long term investments.  When it comes to feedstocks, we need a reliable and sustainable supply of raw materials at competitive prices and we need a stable, coherent and predictable policy framework.  We need a level playing field for all possible uses of biomass.  If you can rely on a stable environment you can make decisions for long term investments.

HG: Bio-based intermediates and building blocks in particular need to meet increasingly demanding cost requirements. Access to competitively priced renewable feedstocks is key for a growing market share.
Regarding market-pull measures, developing standards and evaluating green public procurement are well on the way. Consistent labeling and increasing public awareness of the benefits of bio-based products could be further potent tools to encourage customer demand. Furthermore, a stable, coherent, and predictable regulatory framework is required to retain activities in bio-based chemicals in Europe.

What is the most significant development that you have noted in the field of biobased industries in the last year?

HG: Certain developments indicate that the bio-based industry is preparing for larger volumes.
Here are two recent examples:

  • In early August 2015, BioAmber opened the world’s largest bio-based succinic acid production facility in Sarnia, Ontario. The plant will produce 30,000 metric tons per year of succinic acid from glucose. Succinic acid is used as an intermediate in the production of bio-based polymers and adhesives because it can be further processed to, for example, 1,4-butanediol (BDO) and tetrahydrofuran (THF).
  • At the World Expo in Milan, The Coca-Cola Company launched the first 100-percent bio-based PET bottle. This strong commitment to bio-based packaging could initiate the shift towards high-volume manufacturing of bio-based plastics.

PB: There are so many projects and announcements that it is difficult to highlight just one of them.  EFIB will be a unique opportunity for all participants to answer this question for themselves! Yet the good news is that BBI – the Biobased Industries Joint Undertaking – is now really up and running.  We need more support for innovation in order to realize the full potential of the bioeconomy.

Do you think continued low oil prices will slow the development of biobased chemistry?

PB: The progressive development of bio-based chemistry is a long term trend.  The bioeconomy is an opportunity for the chemical sector and it will continue getting the attention that it deserves, as it extends the range of options for feedstock. The sustainable supply of feedstock over time is what matters most.  Relatively low oil prices at a given time should not have an impact on the long term prospect for bio-based chemistry.

HG: Novel, bio-based products are always benchmarked with traditional fossil-based products. Those chemicals have a long track record of constant cost improvement. If raw material prices are volatile, bio-based products will have the greatest impact when they offer benefit to the customer: better performance, superior LCA, and/or feedstock flexibility.

Pierre; what do you hope to achieve from your session at EFIB this year?

It is important to keep looking at success stories and achievements in the chemical industry, but it is even more important to highlight the challenges faced by the chemical industry to embrace the bio-based approach more widely.  Switching to different feedstock is not just a technical challenge.  It creates new value chains with different stakeholders that have to understand each other.  It is essential for the chemical industry to explain its expectations and challenges in order to make progress in building the connections between stakeholders in these new value chains.

Henrike; What are you looking forward to about participating at EFIB this year?

EFIB is an excellent platform to network with stakeholders from academia, finance, governments, industry, and NGOs. This year I am especially looking forward to getting a mindsight into the approach of several brand owners to bio-based products, because they are closest to customers’ needs.

Source: EFIB, press release, 2015-10-12.

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