Green Chemistry Rising

Most Americans know Henry Ford invented the Model T. But how many realize that the great industrialist of the early 20th century was also a biofuels pioneer?

Of course, the concept of a bioeconomy predates Henry Ford’s and the even earlier commercial use of sugarcane ethanol in Brazil. The seeds of a bioeconomy have been around at least since humans first discovered the art of fermentation. Today, many companies are using biological processes to make commodities formerly produced from non-renewables such as mineral, ores, inorganic chemicals and fossil fuels.

However, so far an economy based on renewables  has only reached a fraction of its full potential, especially in the energy arena. Why aren’t we closer to achieving Ford’s vision?

In some ways, our scientific knowledge and commitment has lagged behind our optimism. It’s one thing to dream of running cars and factories on weeds and sawdust, but finding the right enzymes and catalysts to capture the energy in a way that’s both efficient and cost-effective is another matter. At the same time, broader economic forces encourage society to continue using the more easily available fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals rather than green alternatives.

“The emergence of a new industry is traumatic,”  says Dr. David Zilberman, Robinson chair of the department of agriculture and resource economics at UC Berkeley. “Generally, when a new industry is emerging, it goes through a slow early period before it takes off. That’s what happened to the personal computer. People gave up on it and then – poof! – the first Apple appeared.

“We are in the infancy of the bioeconomy, but already, some profitable products and promising new directions are emerging. Smart policies and business initiatives can make a huge difference in determining when blockbuster technologies will emerge and what they will be.”

Even to skeptics, it’s becoming clear that green means growth. Fossil fuels are getting more difficult and more expensive to develop, and green scientific innovation continues to make biological approaches more efficient and cost-effective. Meanwhile, as predictions of climate change have turned to reality, there’s a building consensus  that the planet can’t survive sustained economic growth that relies on fossil fuels and other nonrewables.  The model needs to be greener, cleaner and more sustainable.

“I’m very optimistic about the bioeconomy,” says Zilberman.  “Environmental concerns induce innovation. The question is: What will come of it?”

Green chemistry rising

One of the most promising sectors of the bioeconomy is green chemistry, which uses biological tools to manufacture more benign chemical products.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about green chemistry,” says David Constable, PhD, director of the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society. “People think that it’s not economical, that it will always cost more. But if you look at a total life cycle of a product, green alternatives are almost always going to be cheaper.”

Industry has taken note: In one estimate by Pike Research, green chemistry is projected to become a nearly $100 billion industry by 2020. The growth this decade has been dramatic, and although it is still a tiny fraction of the overall chemical industry, the Pike report predicts it will reach $5.3 trillion in the same period. Green alternatives in the polymer section are expected to grow the fastest, penetrating up to 5.3% of the total chemical market, according to the report.

As Constable points out, green chemistry works because biology biologists have already discovered chemical pathways and reactions that tend to be more efficient than processes that chemists can conjure up in a lab. Constable got into the green business as an environmental toxicologist for the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in the mid-1990s. “At the time, hardly anyone was thinking about green or sustainable chemistry,” he says.

Back then, the pharmaceutical industry was marked by extraordinary waste. “If you brought in 100 kg of material, you’d end up throwing away 99 kg,” Constable says.

Some of that waste inevitably escaped into the environment. He and his team tried to convince company chemists that they could produce some key pharmaceutical ingredients more efficiently without resorting to multiple reactions with industrial solvents. “They kept telling us that they didn’t know what we were talking about,” he recalls. After dissecting hundreds of reactions, he was able to convince company leaders that they could reduce waste and save money with the power of biology.

Lowering the carbon footprint

In recent years, the green chemistry sector has mobilized chemists concerned about climate change around the world. “As a chemist, I know of the good chemistry has brought society….As a green chemist, I know we can have all those benefits without the negative consequences of toxicity, waste, and other hazards,” said Yale University professor Paul Anastas in 2013.

The Massachusetts-based company Myriant, for example, has developed a microbial-based method for mass-producing succinic acid, a component of many consumer items, including food packaging, pharmaceuticals, plastics and detergents. Succinic acid was once only derived from petroleum products, but the microbial method promises to be cheaper and cleaner.

Other entrepreneurial companies are working on packaging with a lower carbon footprint. NatureWorks, a Minnesota-based company that got its start with extensive investments from Cargill, converts plant fibers  into a biodegradable plastic polymer for packaging. The New York-based company Ecovative uses fungi to produce alternatives to plastic foam packing materials. The company had originally planned to use fungi to produce rigid board insulation as an alternative to foam housing insulation, but after exploring different uses for its mycelin foam, decided to focus on biobased packing materials.

“That’s what’s cool about green chemistry,” Constable says. As with regular chemistry, “just by tweaking the biology and changing a few conditions, you can get the properties you’re looking for.”

Dupont: "Very bullish" on green chemistry

In another telling sign of where the bioeconomy is headed, DuPont has recently built two plants that use microbes and corn sugar to produce bio-PDO (propanediol), a material that can be used to make carpets

and clothes. Dupont’s work on sustainable chemistry dates back for decades, when it began working on refrigerants that wouldn’t deplete the earth’s ozone layer; today it has a green chemistry division and green targets for all its products.  “DuPont is an interesting story,” Constable says. “Twenty-five years ago, they were still a petrochemical company. Now they’re a life science company.”

Traditionally, PDO is synthetically produced using petroleum as a raw material. “Getting PDO from microbes is very economical compared to getting it from petrochemicals,” Constable says. Both of DuPont’s PDO plants will completely sell out their inventory by the end of the year, says Henry Bryndza, PhD, director of Dupont’s BioChemical Sciences and Engineering Central Research and Development.

According to Bryndza, clients aren’t necessarily seeking out bio-PDO because they’re trying to help out the environment; they’re looking for quality. “A consumer who is picking out a carpet might choose Mohawk carpet made with bio-PDO because it’s greener, but it’s the durability and stain resistance that really counts,” he says.  (See “The Bioeconomy Is Everywhere” in Bioenergy Connection, Issue 3.1 for more on Dupont’s work in green chemistry).

That’s one of the key lessons of the bioeconomy: Green products have to be able to compete on their own merits. The government does support bio-based products through several important avenues, including the USDA’s BioPreferred Program that creates a labeling system to guide environmentally conscious shoppers. But labels alone can’t keep the industry afloat. A 2012 survey from Ipsos Public Affairs found that slightly fewer than half of shoppers actively seek out green products, although 40 percent said they’d be willing to pay a little extra to go green. For the majority of shoppers—and companies—performance and quality matter more than environmental impacts. 

Although DuPont worked furiously to replace CFCs with an alternative refrigerant that didn’t harm the ozone layer, the company didn’t embrace green chemistry solely to protect the environment. It’s also smart business. “It’s part of the company’s propensity to look ahead,” Bryndza says. “We’ve really invested. We make everything from the seeds to the final polymer. That gives us confidence that it’s a sustainable way to grow a company. We’re very bullish.”

Green jobs expanding

All these innovations create badly needed jobs: The clean economy sector – which includes includes jobs based on renewables --already employs some 2.7 million workers in jobs ranging from manufacturing to waste water treatment and mass transit, with a smaller energy-related slice of solar, wind, fuel cell, smart grid, battery production and biofuels jobs, according to a Brookings Institute report.

Because they are manufacturing intensive, these “green collar” jobs offer more opportunities for better-paying jobs to low- and middle-skilled workers, particularly in the South and West. Significantly, the Brookings report notes, “the ‘cleantech’ segments produced explosive job gains and the clean economy outperformed the national economy during the recession.”

Of course, bio-based chemicals are not always safer than regular chemicals, so questions about disposal and safety remain. But scientists are working on green disposal methods as well, including reducing waste at the source, recycling and composting whenever possible, developing compostable “plastics,” engineering microbes to break down waste, and using agricultural waste to produce electricity and even biofuels.

Even the decidedly non-green explosion of natural gas and fracking, which has slowed investment in biofuels, has resulted in some promising changes on the side. The infrastructure being developed to deliver liquid natural gas to heavy-duty vehicles, for example, may be an intermediary to delivering biogas in the future.

But while the green chemistry market marches forward, biofuels have lagged behind expectations, says Mary Solecki, director of the clean fuels program at Environmental Entrepreneurs, a non-profit organization that promotes eco-friendly economic growth. In retrospect, she says, some of the early expectations about biofuels were a bit overblown. “Entrepreneurs did a good job of getting people excited and raising funds,” she says. “If we were to reassess biofuels now, we’d have to be more realistic.”

At every stage, the biofuel industry has faced daunting competition from fossil fuels, an industry that enjoys at least a 100-year head start in the market place, not to mention substantial government subsidies for exploration and discovery. Over the last few years, unstable government policies made it harder to attract investors. Not every company has been able to keep up.  This year, KiOR, the operator of the first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plant in the U.S., declared bankruptcy.

But as fossil fuels become more scarce --and the consequences of climate change more apparent --biofuels are bound to take a leap forward, Solecki says. Indeed, two Midwestern plants – owned by Abengoa, and POET – started producing cellulosic (non-food) biofuel this year, preceded by Beta Renewables in Italy and Granbio in Brazil. (For more, see ”The Cellulosic Biofuels Odyssey” in this issue of Bioenergy Connection ).

“In 20 to 30 years, biofuels could account for a huge chunk of the market,” Solecki says.

In that time, she expects that personal vehicles will become increasingly electrified, so the biggest demand for biofuels may come from other high-energy applications, including long-haul shipping and aviation (See “Aviation Biofuels on the Runway,” Bioenergy Connection).

The switch from fossil fuels to biofuels has clear economic and environmental benefits, Solecki says. She notes that simply reducing the amount that the country spends on foreign oil—a commodity that is price-controlled by a foreign cartel—would stabilize the economy. Profits from home-grown fuels could stay at home, especially in rural areas where energy crops are raised. And, not least, a reduction in carbon emissions would help clean the air and slow down the impacts of climate change.

Despite the upside, Solecki predicts the biofuels industry will grow slowly for the near future, though the bioeconomy as a whole will expand at a faster rate. “We aren’t going to see a massive shift in 10 years,” she says. “It will be subtle, not the sea change we once hoped for.”

Henry Ford’s vision of a bio-based economy may eventually come true, but the road is longer than he imagined. “The bioeconomy is dependent on policies that will stimulate innovation, which include public investments in research, incentives to the private sector, and enlightened regulatory regimes that protect the environment and human health without hindering the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Berkeley’s Zilberman.

“The modern era brought us technologies that improved the human condition, but many are not sustainable,” Zilberman adds. “The bioeconomy is part of the transition to a renewable economy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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