For every barrel of crude oil used in the United States, 16% goes into making products ranging from everyday plastics to speciality chemicals, as well as making liquid fuels. From delicatessen packaging to industrial lubricants, these chemicals and products are a crucial, yet almost invisible, part of our daily lives.
Many companies are exploring the commercial potential of using plant materials instead of oil to make plastics. Coca-Cola uses sugar cane instead of petroleum for its PlantBottleTM and Lego recently announced that it will develop a bio-based alternative for its Lego bricks and packaging. Products made from plant-based alternatives to fossil fuels are called bioproducts or biobased products. A new report from the US Department of Agriculture finds that in 2013 alone, the biobased products industry already contributed nearly $400 billion to the US economy.
Here at the Department of Energy’s Office of Bioenergy Technologies, we’re investigating ways to produce bioproducts in a way that also enables biofuel production. We recently announced that we will fund two universities, Texas A&M and Ohio University, to develop technologies that can be used to create bioplastics and biobased chemicals. Products for Plant Research are a growing part of our work, including these exciting developments:
1. We have developed chemical and bio-based products
Department of Energy funding for research and development has helped companies commercialize plant-based building blocks for basic chemicals. Genomatica designed an organism and fermentation process that enables the production of the bio-based chemical butanediol from sugars, and the process was licensed to companies such as BASF. Indiana-based Spero Energy used funding from the Department of Energy’s Small Business Innovation program to develop a technology that uses plant materials to produce chemicals that can flavour baked potato chips.
2. We are helping companies increase their production of bio-based chemicals
Funds from our office were used to build and now continuously operate the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This facility is open to researchers and companies involved in biofuel research and development and helped the industrial biotech company Lygos, Inc. expand and clean its production of malonic acid, a chemical in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and foods. , using sugar derived from biomass instead of oil.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has facilities that allow companies to continue scaling their processes. Companies have also built on processes they developed through Department of Energy funding to expand into green chemical successes, such as the process by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Archer Daniel Midland Company to create propylene glycol from renewable sources.
3. We are finding new ways to produce biofuels and bio-based products together
In July, we held the Bioproducts to Enable Biofuels Workshop, focusing our discussion with bioenergy industry professionals and national laboratory researchers on how a growing bioproducts industry can help promote industry for next-generation biofuels. Biofuels and bioproducts involve many of the same production process steps, and there is potential to produce them side by side in the same biorefinery.
The Office of Bioenergy Technologies’ primary focus for bioproducts has been to develop them alongside biofuels as a way to replace the entire barrel of oil with biomass-based alternatives. In July, we awarded funds to several companies and universities to develop valuable bioproducts along with biofuels from algae. Last year, we awarded funding to five organizations to develop bio-based chemicals, products and fuels, and these projects are moving forward.
4. We are studying the environmental factors in the production of plant-based products.
Although the oil does not burn like gasoline when used in plastics and other products, greenhouse gases are emitted from the energy used to extract the crude oil and produce the products in a factory, and eventually when the product degrades. Bioproducts also require energy to be produced; however, the plants used to make them absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. The energy required to make different types of bioproducts and biochemicals varies and can be higher or lower than that of petroleum.
Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are using the GREET model (which stands for Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation) to study greenhouse gas emissions from many bioproducts. They found that many bioproducts show reduced greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetime compared to their petroleum-based alternatives.
With these efforts, we are working to find beneficial biological substitutes for the entire barrel of crude oil. Our partner companies, laboratories, universities and other research institutions are achieving successes thanks to funding from the Department of Energy and also through their own work. We are pleased to support the development of biofuels and bioproducts that can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to job growth in the US.