Replacing Petroleum with Wood in Chemical Industry to Reduce CO2 Emissions

At KU Leuven, an interdisciplinary team including economists and bio-engineers has delineated ways to use wood as an alternative to petroleum in the chemical industry.

This picture displays the chemical reactor used in the study to split wood into wood pulp and lignin oil. Image Credit: KU Leuven.

Besides focusing on the technological requirements, the team also verified whether the approach would be viable in terms of cost. In a study published in the Science journal, the researchers have reported that a move from petroleum to wood would result in reduced CO2 emissions.

The building materials, plastics, and cleaning agents used by humans every day are often made from chemical components extracted from petroleum, and not from renewable materials. Although petroleum is relatively inexpensive as a raw material at present, this may not be the case forever.

Earlier, the same team reported on ways to transform wood into chemicals that can be used in a wide range of products. At present, that process has been completely delineated. Furthermore, they performed calculations and found that it could be financially viable to construct and run a biorefinery that transforms wood into chemical building blocks.

How it Works

Chemicals are extracted from wood by using a chemical reactor to split it into solid paper pulp and liquid lignin oil. While it is possible to use the pulp to synthesize natural insulation or second-generation biofuels, the lignin oil, similar to the petroleum oil, can be processed further to produce chemical building blocks, like propylene, phenol, and components for producing ink.

In addition, it is possible to use the lignin to make alternative building blocks for plastics. When compared to chemical compounds extracted from petroleum, those based on lignin are less harmful to humans.

In the paper industry, lignin is seen as a residual product and usually burned. That’s a pity, since just like petroleum, it can have many high quality uses if it can be properly separated from wood and the right chemical building blocks are extracted.

Bert Sels, Professor, Department of Microbial and Molecular Systems, KU Leuven

Consequently, wood could be an alternative to petroleum in the chemical industry.

The new publication is a crucial stepping stone in the long-term study of the researchers. “What’s so special about this study is that we calculated the economic viability of a switch from petroleum to wood,” added Professor Sels.

The researchers collaborated with a Belgian-Japanese ink company to form a realistic scenario, since some of the compounds extracted from lignin can be used to produce ink. The calculations show that a chemical plant using wood as a raw material can turn profitable within a few years of operation.

CO2 Storage

Sustainable harvest of wood can be achieved through smart forest management.

Moreover, as a result of the shrinking paper industry, there is currently a surplus of wood in Europe.

Bert Sels, Professor, Department of Microbial and Molecular Systems, KU Leuven

The researchers are also joining hands with landscape managers and waste processors to use prunings and other waste wood.

When compared to the environmental cost of using petroleum, the impact of using wood would be lower. This is because the chemical compounds extracted from wood lead to less CO2 emissions. Furthermore, products created from wood derivatives have the ability to store CO2, quite similar to trees. “As a result, it would be possible to store carbon from CO2 in plastics—preferably recyclable ones,” stated Sels.

The researchers will demonstrate the application of their study by scaling up the production process. The first test phase is already in progress. The ultimate goal is to set up a wood biorefinery in Belgium. Meanwhile, the team is in talks with several business partners who can process the lignin oil and cellulose pulp into a range of products.

The chemical sector emits a lot of CO2 globally. A serious change is needed to achieve a carbon neutral chemistry. By scaling up our research project, we hope to get the industry on board.

Bert Lagrain, Sustainable Chemistry Innovation Manager, KU Leuven


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