Navigant Research Blog

Kick-Starting the Bio-Based Economy

Mackinnon Lawrence — January 30, 2012

Massive, varied, and intricately woven into the fabric of modern industrial society, the global chemical industry was valued at over $4 trillion in 2011, according to Pike Research’s Green Chemistry report.  The non-pharmaceutical chemicals industry in the United States is valued at around $700 billion per year.

The rise of bio-chemicals promises to transform that industry.  Bio-based chemicals and plastics – often referred to as bio-based products – are commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are derived from biological products or biomass.  They serve as direct replacements for the building blocks used in petrochemical production.

At last week’s 3rd Annual Bio-based Chemicals Summit, in San Diego, upstart biomass innovators and stalwart petrochemical industry stakeholders converged to capitalize on opportunities in the emerging bio-based economy.  Excitement is high, but it is largely a derivative of unrealized potential in the biofuels industry.  That potential could be accelerated by federal action: this week, President Obama is expected to unveil his Blueprint for a Bioeconomy.  (The bio-chemical sector is covered under our Bioenergy Advisory Service, which was launched last week.)

The bio-based segment of chemical production looks poised for dramatic growth.  As discussed in our recent report, Biofuels Markets and Technologies, there has been a significant shift away from a primary emphasis on biofuels production towards high-value, low-volume bioproducts in the last couple of years.  Currently, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that at least 20,000 bio-based products are currently being manufactured in North America.  USDA has certified dozens of products with a “bio-preferred” label, which denotes a high percentage of bio-based ingredients.

The shift in strategy away from biofuels and towards bio-based products aims to generate near-term revenue to facilitate broader scale-up efforts.  Ultimately, stakeholders envision a pervasive, renewable bio-based economy, comprising power, heat, fuel, and chemicals production derived from biomass resources.

The strategy flies in the face of existing biofuels policy in the United States, which one presenter in San Diego called “ass-backwards.”  From subsidies to loan guarantees to grants, the federal government has relied on a number of mechanisms to ramp up biofuels production.  Where there are bio-based chemical incentives, they are typically treated as complimentary to biofuels policy.

Shifting this paradigm is of chief concern among bioproduct advocates.  Bioproducts, the logic goes, are a natural stepping stone to biofuels production, which is tasked with supplanting an entrenched and highly profitable petroleum fuel industry.  The price tag for doing so is daunting – roughly $16 billion per year to meet the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) mandate.  Requiring less capital and feedstocks, widespread bioproducts production is viewed as a lower hurdle that can spearhead development in the utilization of biomass as a replacement to crude oil.

Despite its promise, the bioproducts market faces many challenging obstacles that will likely stifle growth in the United States over the near-term.  Three key issues are summarized briefly below:

  • First, EPA’s regulation of industrial chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) may lead to delays and increases in the time-to-market.  While bio-based chemicals are subject to review, many petroleum-derived chemicals were grandfathered in when the regulation came into force in the 1970s.
  • Second, limited access to feedstocks may confine production to areas with access to regional biomass supply chains, potentially stifling growth in the industry.  Even where feedstocks may be prevalent, cost remains a barrier to the commercialization of biobased production from advanced (non-commodity) feedstocks, such as camelina, jatropha, algae, and switchgrass.
  • Third, accessing capital for scale-up remains a difficult challenge.  Although higher-value bio-based products require less capacity than biofuels production, many investors are wary of building a first plant given the associated technology and market risks.  Without steel in the ground, it’s difficult for the industry to accurately assess the risks of subsequent investment.

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