Are Growth Prospects Stunted for Plant-based Chemicals?

Originally published 03 March 2015 on IHS Engineering360.

Crude oil and natural gas have long been the primary feedstocks for the global chemical industry. But renewable feedstocks such as sugar (from corn or sugarcane) and glycerin (from vegetable oils) have recently challenged the dominance of fossil fuels. Natural fats and oils have long served as feedstocks for fatty acids and fatty alcohols; starches and sugars are well-established starting materials for ethanol, lactic acid and sorbitol.

More recently, plant-derived feedstocks have emerged as starting materials for commodity chemicals such as ethylene, isoprene and para-xylene, as well as for novel chemicals such as 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid, isosorbide and farnesene. These bio-based building blocks are in various stages of commercial development.

The chemicals industry remains in constant motion, however, and recent developments in the petrochemical market have significantly changed the outlook for renewable chemicals. A glut of naphtha-based cracking capacity is coming on stream in Asia, easing concerns about future shortages of C3, C4, C5 and pygas feedstocks. Those concerns drove much of the interest in alternative routes to butadiene, isoprene and other chemicals.

Even so, corporate sustainability initiatives play a role in the development of bio-based chemicals and plastics. Coca-Cola Co., for instance, pledged in 2009 to use PlantBottle bio-based packaging for all Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles by 2020. Automaker Ford used PlantBottle material for interior fabric fitted into a Ford Fusion Energi, introduced in 2013. The fabric consisted of up to 30% plant-based materials and covered the car’s seat cushions, seat backs, head restraints, door panel inserts and headliners.

IHS Engineering360, March 2015.


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