Report Suggests Biorefineries May Have a Major Role in Mitigating Climate Change, Addressing Energy Security, and Creating Economic Growth

Biorefineries may have a major role to play in mitigating the threat of climate change; meeting the “seemingly boundless demand” for energy, fuels, chemicals and materials; and creating economic growth, according to a new report released by the World Economic Forum: The Future of Industrial Biorefineries.

The report defines a biorefinery as a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, chemicals, feed, materials and energy from biomass: biological materials from living or recently living organisms. Biorefineries will encompass a variety of conversion processes and different sized installations due to the range of processes—biological, chemical, and thermal—that can be deployed, the report notes.

As described in the report, a biorefinery might produce one or several low-volume, high-value chemical products and a low-value, high-volume liquid transportation fuel while simultaneously generating electricity and process heat for its own use or, potentially, for sale. The high-value products enhance profitability, the high-volume fuel helps meet energy needs, and power production reduces costs and avoids greenhouse gas emissions, the report says.

Around a dozen additional chemicals apart from syngas and fuels may currently be produced per refinery but, ultimately, the local market value for the final products will determine which products will be produced. The production of chemicals will be an important part of the economics of a biorefinery (flexibility to adapt to timely market needs), as the composition of plant material allows easy derivation of primary chemicals, quite different to those derived from oil. Consequently, a bio-based chemical industry will be built on a different selection of “platform” chemicals than those in the petrochemical industry.

—“The Future of Industrial Biorefineries”

The report, was edited and authored by Sir David King at the University of Oxford, was produced in collaboration with Royal DSM N.V., Novozymes, DuPont and Braskem. While noting that the biorefineries industry could supplement demand for sustainable energy, chemicals and materials, aiding energy security, the report also acknowledges that a number of obstacles still stand in the way of biorefineries realizing their full economic potential.

The emerging biomass value chain will create significant business opportunities and new winners, with technology- and science-driven companies with access to key enzyme and microbial technologies being central to the development of the bio-based economy. The growth of the bio-based economy could create significant economic growth and job creation opportunities, particularly in rural areas, where incomes and economic prospects are currently moderate, and in advanced manufacturing.

—Sir David King

The report says that a biomass value chain could create revenue potentials by 2030 of:

  • US$15 billion for agricultural inputs
  • US$89 billion for biomass production
  • US$30 billion for biomass trading
  • US$10 billion for biorefining inputs
  • US$80 billion for biorefining fuels
  • US$6 billion for bioplastics
  • US$65 billion for biomass power and heat

The report identifies a number of technical; commercial and strategic; and sustainability challenges that need to be addressed before any large-scale commercialization of the biorefining industry can succeed.

  • Technical challenges include improving feedstock yield and the composition of biomass; developing more efficient enzymes; the need to develop microbial cell factories; and processing and logistics.

  • Commercial and strategic challenges include the integration of biorefineries into existing value chains; funding difficulties; and the uncertainty that faces a new, unconventional field.

  • Sustainability challenges include land-use change (direct and indirect) and its effect on GHG emissions; the link between commodity prices and biorefineries; reputational risks; and legislation-driven deforestation.

Overcoming these challenges will require multiple stakeholders to play an active role in promoting the industrialization of biorefinery systems, the report finds. Governments, in particular, have a key role to play in providing financial support to the bio-based sector and in creating markets to ensure that it becomes established and successful.

Active government support is required for development of the bioeconomy,” said Stephan Tanda, member of the Managing Board of Director of Royal DSM, noting that in the US, that includes setting a price on carbon.“Without pricing carbon properly, there is not the right incentive structure. We need a comprehensive global climate change agreement that creates a level playing field.

The report concludes that the most effective measures to induce a significant impact of bio-based production on all industries would be:

  • Create new markets for business to support bio-based products and encourage competition.

  • Set up public-private partnerships to initiate private sector investments and reduce the delay between product development and commercialization.

  • Identify potential growth and impact areas for key industries and provide them with incentives to achieve specified targets such as CO2 equivalents reduction.

  • Inform the public that bio-based products rae a realistic supplement to fossil- based products but that they cannot mitigate the rising demand for fossil fuels.

Policy-makers need to accept that no true low-carbon technology will penetrate the mass market in the short-term and industry will continue to rely on fossil-based production for the time being.

—“The Future of Industrial Biotechnologies”

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