Farewell to the oil age: does the future belong to biorefineries?

dvoevnore, stock.adobe.com

The current crises show us very clearly that we need to rethink many things much more quickly than we thought. In the short term, we will not be able to completely dispense with fossil raw materials, especially when it comes to providing energy for production facilities in the chemical industry, for example. Carbon is also indispensable as an elementary building block for chemistry in the material conversion of fossil raw materials. But do we have to get coal, oil and natural gas out of the ground for this? The chemical industry is in the midst of a revolutionary transformation process in which the circular economy, recycling, sustainability and biorefineries are elementary building blocks for the goal of climate neutrality.

Biorefineries for the use of renewable raw materials and the recycling of industrial raw materials are already becoming increasingly important in many countries. A biorefinery is an industrial plant in which energy and/or useful by-products such as chemicals, materials or food are sustainably produced from biomass, utilizing all raw material components as completely as possible. An important goal of biorefineries is to replace fossil fuels as an important raw material in the chemical industry – towards a bio-based industry. The choice of possible raw materials for biorefineries appears to be unlimited and, depending on the region and climate zone, ranges from grass, straw, wood or algae and fungi to selected plants, fruit peels, empty palm fruit bunches and many types of other waste.

Germany has also recognized the potential of biorefineries and is at the forefront worldwide. According to the study “EU Biorefinery Outlook to 2030”, around 300 biorefineries in the EU already generate a turnover of several billion euros with bio-based products. They currently produce around 4.6 million tons of chemicals and materials in Europe. The plants are mainly located in Central Europe, particularly in Germany, France, the Benelux countries and Northern Italy. In Germany, there are currently 59 biorefineries spread across the country. One biorefinery plant currently in focus is the biorefinery of Europe’s largest paper producer UPM in Leuna. From 2023, chemical raw materials such as bio-monoethylene glycol (MEG) and bio-monopropylene glycol (MPG) are to be produced here on the basis of wood.

Regional hardwood and industrial wood that cannot be recycled, as well as residual materials from sawmills, will serve as the raw material basis for an annual production capacity of 220,000 tons of chemicals. Around EUR 550 million was invested in the world’s first fully integrated wood-based biorefinery, which completely breaks down a single raw material and uses it to produce several intermediate and end products.

Biorefineries will be an irreplaceable component of a circular bioeconomy. In the truest sense of the word, a genuine circular economy in which materials can be recycled and refined again. In the future, biorefineries will probably be transformed into much smaller and decentralized units so that biogas plants, for example, can also be included in the recycling of raw materials. We are at the dawn of a bioeconomy era in the chemical industry and will be happy to take you with us on this journey.

Dr Volkhard Francke, Market Intelligence Senior Expert