Chemical products cannot only be produced from oil, but also from biomass. For that purpose, the biomass has to be converted by chemical or biotechnological processes and further processed. At the Thünen Institute we are working on the development and evaluation of the best route from the raw materials to the product.
Sugar, starch, cellulose, fats and oil as well as other ingredients from biomass can only be rarely used directly for the production of bio-based products. In the vast majority of the cases it is necessary to convert the biomass into intermediate products like alcohols, organic acids or unsaturated compounds. Then they are processed to marketable products. For this purpose biotechnological,l as well as chemical, particularly chemical-catalytic, conversion processes come into question.
In the last decades fossil resources, especially oil, were inexpensive and abundantly available. That is why the chemical industry focused on this raw material and developed highly efficient production processes. A switch to biomass means that new processes needs to be developed and sometimes even old routes revived from the pre petrochemical era. In both cases the conversion processes have to be highly efficient. This will only be achieved by the use of highly specific catalysts – biological as well as chemical – and optimized process conditions.
But which direction should be followed, the biotechnological route or the chemical one? As is so often the case, this depends on the desired product. For some products, like itaconic acid, L- or D-lactic acid,bioconversion is the suitable way. For other products only chemical catalytic conversion is possible, such as for 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). Sometimes both routes compete with each other, e.g., n-butanol. In that case the advantages and disadvantages have to be compared without prejudice to identify the best suited process.
But biotechnological and chemical processes can also complement each other. One example for this is bioethanol, the worldwide largest fermentation process, where the substance is very efficiently produced from carbohydrates. Ethanol is then used as a platform chemical and supplies a variety of basic chemicals and commodities by chemical-catalytic transformation.
Article from the magazine "Wissenschaft erleben" 2015/2 (in German):
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Article from the magazine "Wissenschaft erleben" 2014/1 (in German):
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