May 18, 2024

Impact of Climate Change on the Renewable Chemicals Market: Resilience and Adaptation

Renewable Chemicals: The Future of Sustainable Production

The Rise of Bio-Based Materials
As environmental concerns continue to grow regarding fossil fuel usage and plastic waste, renewable chemicals produced from biomass are positioned to play a larger role in industry. These bio-based materials include chemicals, polymers, and plastics that are wholly or largely derived from agricultural crops or agricultural crop byproducts rather than petroleum. Some key advantages of renewable chemicals over petroleum-based equivalents include utilizing waste biomass, reducing dependence on imported petroleum, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and producing more sustainable end products.

Types of Renewable Feedstocks

There are various types of renewable feedstocks that can be used to produce bio-based materials. Agricultural residues such as corn stover and wheat straw are abundant waste resources that do not compete with food production. Dedicated energy crops like switchgrass and miscanthus can also be grown on marginal lands with lower agricultural inputs. Wood residuals from forestry operations offer another lignocellulosic biomass source. Additional feedstocks include vegetable oils from plants like soybean, coconut, and palm; sugar sources like sugar cane, sugar beets, and sweet sorghum; and starch from corn kernels. Each type of biomass contains different combinations of sugars, lignin, and other components that determine whichchemical intermediates and end products can be produced.

Platform Chemicals Lead to Product Diversity

From renewable feedstocks, industry produces several “platform chemicals” that serve as basic building blocks for a wide variety of downstream materials. Examples include succinic acid, adipic acid, glucaric acid, furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), and levulinic acid. These platform chemicals allow renewable alternatives to petroleum-derived materials like nylon, polyurethanes, polyesters, and other commodity plastics. Additional renewable building blocks include lactic acid, 3-hydroxypropionic acid, and 1,4-butanediol that provide sustainable substitutes for commodity polymers. As technology advances, the range of compounds that can be produced from biomass continues to expand, increasing opportunities for the renewable chemicals sector.

Commercial Scale Production Underway

While renewable chemicals were once only produced on a pilot scale, major manufacturing facilities active today demonstrate commercial-scale viability. Myriant, for example, operates a plant producing succinic acid from corn for applications like substitute plasticizer and polyurethane intermediates. Braskem’s green ethylene plant inBrazil converts sugarcane ethanol into polyethylene using proven sugar-to-chemicals technologies. Corbion’s lactic acid facility in Thailand produces over 100,000 metric tons annually from cassava starch for applications from food ingredients to bioplastics. Numerous efforts are also underway to produce FDCA and other aromatic compounds from lignocellulose at large scales. As production capacities increase and technology costs decrease, renewable chemicals are positioned to take on a larger market share traditionally held by fossil fuel derivatives.

Standardization Advances Commercialization

For renewable chemicals to achieve widespread market penetration, standards development is needed to address quality assurance, safety, sustainability attributes, and consistency across supply chains. The American Standards for Testing Materials (ASTM) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are actively developing standards in areas like bio-based content measurements and sustainability criteria for bio-based products. However, additional standardization work remains to be done in areas like material safety data sheets, hazard communication, analytical testing procedures, interoperability of data systems, and logistical infrastructure. Harmonized standards will provide regulatory clarity, ensure product quality, and accelerate commercial adoption of bio-based technologies. As standards progress, renewable chemicalsproduction is expected to increase rapidly over the next decade.

Consumer Markets Drive Growth Through Branding

While industrial applications represent much of the current market forĀ renewable chemicals, consumer product companies focused on sustainability are helping drive growth through branding and marketing renewable content. Examples include NatureWorks’ PLA polylactic acid used in 3D printing and compostable food packaging, Coca-Cola’s plant-based PET bottles, and Genomatica’s renewable BDO used in spandex, packaging coatings, and personal care products. Patagonia employs bio-based nylon from Anthropic made via their fermentation platform. As consumer goods giants commit to bio-based targets and eco-labels proliferate, demand will increase for branded renewable chemicals and polymers that help market sustainable materials to eco-conscious shoppers. This emphasis on the renewable credentials of consumer products bodes well for the future expansion of bio-based material adoption.

Investment Indicates Long-Term Viability

With technological advancements, expansions of production capacity, commitments from corporate customers, and growing consumer interest, renewable chemicals have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital and private equity investment globally in recent years. This includes sizeable deals by firms such as Braskem, Corbion, Genomatica, and Yield10 Bioscience. Government funding through public-private partnerships has also supported research, development, and scale-up initiatives. Such sustained funding demonstrates confidence from investors, governments, and large companies that renewable chemicals represent a strategically important long-term industry. With environmental sustainability, energy security, and economic development among the key drivers, investment suggests the renewable chemicals sector will continue to strengthen as a durable, viable alternative to petrochemical production routes. Long investment time horizons indicate stakeholders see renewable chemicals as an integral part of the future low-carbon bioeconomy.