Substituting plant chemistry for petroleum chemistry


Green chemistry based on plant metabolisms is on the rise this week at the Plant Based Summit held in Paris. What's at stake? Nothing less than getting out of our dependence on oil.

Making oil from algae, using beetroot to make tires, producing biodegradable plastics from sugar cane... these are the challenges taken up by industrialists mobilized around "biosourced solutions". All of them will be at the major international meeting of the Plant Based Summit, which is being held at the Pavillon d'Armenonville at Porte Maillot in Paris. 19 and 20 November 2013.

Raw material producers like Terreos and Unigrains, chemists like Arkema, Basf and Solvay, processors like Roquette, and innovation centers like ARD (Agrosindustries Research and Development) and the Agrosources Industries cluster (IAR) are reconfiguring our production methods at very high speed to emerge from the oil era. Whether we like it or not, the extraction of black gold - which receives 500 billion in subsidies every year - is becoming exorbitant, when everyone knows that it is unsustainable. Even the Goldman Sachs bank admits that the boom achieved with the use of shale oil and gas is expected to end in 2015. (1) !

A watchword: go biosourced.

Industrialists have understood this: for them, the change consists of moving from finite and therefore exhaustible resources to production using plants, known as "bio-sourced" production. This biosourced chemistry should represent a market of 8.1 Mt/year of products and benefit from a growth of 17.7 % per year, according to the analysts of the sector. And this concerns all sectors, which can thus "green their chemistry": automotive, textile, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, energy or fuel production...

Sometimes it is a question of substitution, sometimes of new molecules with new uses. In the first case, molecules traditionally supplied by petrochemicals are replaced by natural equivalents derived from the metabolism of bacteria, fungi, algae or agricultural crops.
This is the case of succinic acid, for example, which replaces adipic acid (made from petroleum and used for nylons, cosmetics, as a food additive or to obtain the polyurethane of shoe soles).

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Today, BioAmber operates in France near Reims one of the largest large-scale production plants for bio-sourced succinic acid. In 2014, this production is expected to be transferred to the Sarnia, Ontario plant. This will increase production from 2,000 tonnes to 30,000 tonnes of succinic acid per year. This will provide a significant market share for this product, which is used as a flavouring agent for food and beverages, as well as an intermediate for various industrial chemicals such as dyes, fragrances, lacquers, photographic chemicals and alkyd resins, and pharmaceuticals. Until the early 1900s, it was used in Europe as a natural antibiotic and general remedy.

In the same spirit, the Biobutterfly project, led by Michelin, ADEME and Axens, (a company of the IFP Energies nouvelles group) aims to create a new route for the production of synthetic rubbers from biomass. With an investment of €52.1 million (including €14.7 million of public funds), the initiative, which will run for eight years, is to develop and market bio-based butadiene, replacing the fossil-based chemical reagent used in the manufacture of synthetic rubbers, of which 60 % of the world's production is intended for the tyre sector.

In the second case, it is a question of inventing new channels. Here we can give the example of isosorbide (not accessible from oil) which constitutes a new chemical platform from which polycarbonates, polyurethanes, polyesters, or derivatives such as diesters, etc. can be made. The BioHub®7 research programme, launched in 2006 and supported by OSEO (French Agency for Innovation) is a work of sustainable chemistrywhich focuses on this compound, which can replace phthalates in particular, which are endocrine disruptors that are increasingly detested by consumers (biphenol A in particular).

It is also likely that this conversion of our industry will lead to the reallocation of refineries using oil, as is happening in Sardinia. On the petrochemical site of Porto Torres, Polimeri Europa, the petrochemical subsidiary of the Italian energy giant ENI, has joined forces with Novamont (Italian specialist in biopolymers and biodegradable plastics produced from vegetable matter, such as starch) to invest 500 million euros in a bio-complex manufacturing lubricants, monomers and bio-sourced plastics.

To those who are concerned about the risk that these productions might capture a raw material intended for food, Christophe Rupp-Dahlem, President of the Institute of Plant Chemistry (which organizes the Plant Based Summit) answers : "Today in Europe, only 10% of the chemical industry operates from plant-based products using about 0.5% of arable land. We have a cascade approach, i.e. there is a complementarity between food production and chemistry. We also focus on the territories that supply us".

Recognizing the added value of renewable and biodegradable materials

Of course, this new industrial approach requires a regulatory and incentive framework in order to make competitive products whose added value in terms of lower environmental impact is currently not taken into account (the famous externalities that GDP ignores). 
The actors gathered this week at the Plant Based Summit want to show a new economy, based on industrial ecosystems with integrated activities (the waste of some becomes the resources of others), and exchanges in a loop. They hope that the public authorities will support this virtuous circular economy, because it is in touch with biological reality and spares living environments and their regeneration.
In charge of bioeconomy at INRA, Paul Colonna says that "a bio-based product is not necessarily biodegradable. But this chemistry through living metabolisms extends the range of available molecules and reduces the carbon footprint by avoiding a lot of CO2 production". 

The years 2012-2013 saw the launch of public strategies to invent this new economy based on the living (or bio-economy). One year after the American programme The National Bioeconomy Blueprint launched to strengthen the research effort in the biosciences, the European Commission announced its strategy for a sustainable bio-economy. The aim is to "reconcile food security and the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes while ensuring environmental protection", she stressed. While recalling what is at stake: "with a turnover of €2,000 billion, the bioeconomy provides around 22 million jobs in Europe in sectors as diverse as agriculture, forestry, a sustainable future? fishing, food, chemicals and biofuels" (2). An Observatory on the Bioeconomy has been set up as well as a group of experts. A stakeholders' meeting is being organised on 26 November in Brussels on the subject.

A large-scale public-private partnership involving fifty industrialists was announced last summer. It is the "biobased initiative" or BBI, which supports the development of demonstrators and industrial units. One billion euros is invested in these projects by European States when the private sector contributes 2.8 billion euros.
"The challenges of the bioeconomy: betting on the living for a sustainable future" is the theme of the next Audience on Living Things, which will be held on 12 and 13 December at UNESCO, in collaboration withInstitut Inspire et d'Agrostratégies et Prospectives
We invite all those who are exploring the paths of an alternative industry, more sober and less polluting than the one inherited from the 20th century.

Dorothée Benoît-Browaeys, editor-in-chief of the Bio innovations section Up'Magazine

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(1) The short future of the shale oil boom as seen by Goldman Sachs

(2) COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENTAccompanying the document "Communication on Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe".

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