It is widely known that most engineered products or processes use oil and gas-derived chemicals. This is apparent across a range of areas, from car manufacturing to industrial solvents and pharmaceuticals. However, as pressure on companies to become more sustainable begins to increase, more and more industrial sectors are exploring ways to find plant-based chemicals with similar properties.
Rattiya Thongdumhyu / Shutterstock
The increase in pressure means that, with the backing of businesses and the government, biochemicals could become a significant industry in the UK. In addition to this, rising oil prices and new regulations mean that in the future, traditional oil and gas-based chemicals may no longer be an economically viable option. Furthermore, biochemicals can offer a wide range of improved qualities, such as sustainable production, biodegradability, and reduced toxicity.
LBNet has created a list that highlights the most promising biochemicals, which also have an active research foundation in the UK. These chemicals are thought to potentially benefit an existing area of industry. The Network Director of The Lignocellulosic Biorefinery Network (LBNet), Simon McQueen-Mason believes that by producing this list, it will show industries the benefits of switching to plant-based chemicals as well as helping the government to identify the best opportunities for the UK economy.
These biochemicals have a broad range of applications, including biodegradable plastics, skin creams and detergents; all of which create billions of pounds in revenue. These products are also, all currently made from petroleum.
Lactic Acid is an excellent example of a replacement chemical. This chemical can be used to produce biodegradable plastics, which could replace the traditional plastics used in packaging and textile fibers. It could reduce the amount of non-biodegradable material entering landfill sites. Additionally, this material can be used for medicines or medical screws that are left in the body after surgery.
Similarly, 5 Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and 2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) are chemicals that make products more durable, as well as being able to produce biodegradable materials. FDCA can be made from natural sugars, a technique that has been used by one of the UK’s developers in natural plastics, Biome Bioplastics, to create food packaging.
Glucaric acid is another chemical that can be used to replace phosphate chemicals in detergents. There has been a recent push to phase phosphate chemicals out due to environmental concerns and the harmful nature of the substance. Therefore, there is currently a gap in the market for a biochemical that prevents limescale and dirt.
The Australian company, Circa, has recently patented a process to develop a less toxic and greener alternative for manufacturing solvents, using Levoglucosenone. The company has also decided to work on the process in the UK.
One of the more exciting developments is Itaconic acid, which can be used for the production of superabsorbent polymers, such as those found in nappies. On top of this, unsaturated polyester resins, like those used in pipes or automotive parts, can be created using the acid too. The chemical is thought to be able to replace acrylic acid, which is currently petroleum-based. Although the present market for this biochemical is small, it has the potential to grow to over £10bn.
Levulinic acid, n-Butanol, muconic acid and 1,3-butanediol are all mentioned in the original report, the 'UKBiochem10 report', and it delves into further detail about their uses and economic potential. McQueen-Mason hopes that the report will be able to bring focus for the UK government around where resources should be allocated, as well as calling on the industry to reconsider the substances they use in manufacturing. LBNet believes that there needs to be policies in place to incentivize companies to fund research into bio-based chemicals and identify future supply chains.