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ACHEMA 2015: The EU Bioeconomy

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

The focal topic at this year’s ACHEMA trade show, BiobasedWorld, paid tribute to the momentum that bioeconomy has gained in the last few years and the vital role it plays within the process industries.

The extensive congress programme featured more than 90 presentations relating to BiobasedWorld, which, among numerous other topics, delved into the economic and political factors influencing the bioeconomy. The European Conference for Bioeconomy, held on Thursday 18 June, hosted a number of high level speakers from European and national institutions, as well as key industry figures. The presentations analysed the current status of the bioeconomy, asking a number of important questions:

  • What is the current situation of the bioeconomy in the European Union?
  • What progress has been made in the individual member states?
  • How do policy initiatives and funding programmes react to this challenge?

Bioeconomy and the chemical industry

The bioeconomy in relation to the European chemical industry was, of course, an important aspect of Thursday’s session. Of particular note was a presentation by Dr Jörg Rothermel of the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) on ‘Renewable Raw Materials in the EU Chemical Industry’.

The feedstock mix

The chemical sector is the largest industrial consumer of energy in Europe and serves a number of customer industries, ranging from packaging to construction to automotive. In 2013, the EU chemical industry used approximately 78.6 million t of materials for feedstock. Of this feedstock mix, mineral oil derivatives counted for 57.6 million t, natural gas for 12.2 million t, renewables for around 8 million t, and coal for 0.8 million t.

The European chemical industry made use of quite a diverse range of renewable feedstock in 2013. Materials used included sugar and starch (20% of total renewable feedstock mix), vegetable oils (16%), vegetable pulp (14%), ethyl tertiary butyl ether (13%), natural rubber (13%) and bioethanol (6%).

Sustainability and renewables: motivation for use

Dr Rothermel noted that, despite economic considerations (price and availability), industries have been broadening their horizons when it comes to sustainability and renewable fuel sources in recent years. New and innovative products have burst onto the market, paving the way for an age of industrial biotechnology. Renewables can also offer possible price advantages, by diversifying companies’ raw materials base, and will help the industry to comply with the much publicised European Decarbonisation Strategy, which demands deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the course of this century.

According to Dr Rothermel, there is a focus on energy production based on fossil carbon in the chemical industry, as >90% of CO2 emissions are energy bound. Raw material supply is strongly connected to energy production by fossil fuels. Feedstocks used as a carbon source are, in principle, interchangeable and therefore sustainability and optimum resource efficiency should be the guiding feature moving forwards.

Renewable raw materials: past, present and future

  • 1960s: The petrochemical feedstock began to replace coal and renewables.
  • 1970s: The oil crisis pushed the chemical industry to look for alternative fuels sources.
  • 1980s - 1990s: The chemical industry was used as an outlet for surplus agricultural production.
  • 2000s: New economy; renewables are scarce and investigation into biodiversity is on the up.

Looking forward, Europe 2020, the European Union’s 10 year jobs and growth strategy, is set to create the conditions for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Five headline targets, covering employment, research and development, climate/energy, education, social inclusion and poverty reduction have been agreed for the EU to achieve by the end of 2020. In terms of climate, the EU Bioeconomy Strategy and Horizon 2020 scheme are underway. The EU Bioeconomy Strategy was adopted by governments on 13 February 2012. This strategy proposes a comprehensive approach to address the ecological, environmental, energy, food supply and natural resource challenges that Europe and the world are facing today. Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU research and innovation programme on record, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 - 2020). The goal of the scheme is to ensure that Europe produces world class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.

Bioeconomy: the financial struggle

Financial backing and investment is another problem facing the development of bioeconomies. During an interview with ACHEMA Special, resource specialist Eugen Weinberg spoke about why the financial markets are hesitant to invest in biobased technologies.

“The topic of sustainability seems to leave the financial markets cold at the moment. Although it depends on the specific sectors and areas, the financial market participants do not eagerly agree on paying a ‘premium’ for sustainability. The may change in the future but the financial markets first and foremost look for profitability, whereas sustainability often comes at some cost,” said Weinberg.

“If market participants come to the conclusion that bioproducts offer some benefit compared to the traditional petrol based products, they might be ready to pay higher prices for them,” Weinberg continued, when asked about the influence of oil prices on the biofuel industry. “This may well be the case if the legislative initiatives stimulate the demand for bioproducts via tax relief or imply fixed market shares or absolute selling volumes. Ceteris paribus in normal market conditions, the bioproducts must be competitively priced. In order to increase the market share for bioproducts, even a more aggressive pricing for them must be necessary in order to prevail the customers’ prejudice and customs.”

Finally, when questioned about the ‘biologisation’ of the industry, Weinberg said, “From the current point of view, it’s difficult to see a very strong biologisation of the industry. There are many barriers in its way: the acceptance, the technological breakthrough, the availability of materials, often higher costs, etc. In my opinion, rather than thinking about the substitution of the traditional raw materials base and the replacement of the existing applications, the bioeconomy should focus more on identifying the niche sectors, products, processes and technologies best served by the bioeconomy and its means.”

Edited from presentations, interviews and reports by Rosalie Starling

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