Where will our chemicals come from when the oil wells run dry? Jose Lopez-Sanchez discusses renewable feedstocks

Renewable chemistry research has traditionally focused on finding alternatives to petrochemical-based fuels. But oil produces far more than just fuel. The modern world is both built from and powered by oil and interest is now shifting more to finding alternative sources for the range of chemical feedstocks that crude oil also provides. Can we replace fossil fuel-derived feedstocks with sustainable bio-based alternatives?

Our planet is home to a growing population, which demands more energy and more chemicals to meet its needs. We must meet that demand in a way that is not only environmentally friendly, but that also makes sense economically. Although there is public support for sustainable products and processes, consumers are, on the whole, not yet prepared to pay a premium. Any renewable alternative must satisfy all three strands of this ‘trilemma’, or it will not survive in the long term.

We can, with technology available today, convert ‘waste’ biomass into chemicals and fuels, satisfying the environmental and supply aspects of the trilemma. However, the high costs and limitations in our understanding of converting biomass represent financial barriers to uptake. But we are close to seeing real waves in the market. Although oil prices fluctuate, costs are undoubtedly rising and bio-based alternatives will only become cheaper as our understanding improves. 

After oil

European institutions, funding bodies and industry back the development of biorenewable consumer products. We have the political will to support research that will make this idea a reality, and we are already experiencing a progressive, albeit slow, global revolution. But we face challenges. 

At the moment, fuels and chemical feedstocks compete for a share of oil production. Biomass can be a viable alternative supply for both, but before jumping in, a balance must be reached and life cycle analyses conducted. 

We should not expect biomass alone to provide our energy and materials. Renewable energy technologies, such as water splitting, solar fuels, energy storage, fuel cells and photovoltaics will be key to powering our future. These technologies are not yet fully able to do so, and so in the medium term biomass can be used to meet the shortfall. But in the long term, those technologies should satisfy our energy needs so that chemicals production can be separated from fuel production.

Biomass crops draw criticism for competing with food crops for space. This needs to be addressed, for example by shifting to non-food lignocellulosic biomass for chemical production. Land needs to be carefully allocated to both arable farming and biomass production to ensure food security. Using microbial and algal biomass and organic waste generated by the food, paper or forestry industries – or even urban populations – will also reduce the burden on land use.

Matter of fact

We must also realise that although the era of oil may be drawing to a close, during its brief rule it has become integral to our existence. Petrochemicals have been the mainstay of the chemical and energy industries for a century. The infrastructure of industrialisation was composed in oil and any alternative must work within that system. We have a much better chance of making the transition to biological sources if we integrate new processes into existing technology.

Which leads to the last, and most important point: none of the work we do today will reach the market if the research takes place in isolation. Despite incredible volumes of research in biomass conversion, there have been few tangible successes and renewable feedstocks are not yet fulfilling their potential to replace oil. We must take our lead from industry to give our research relevance.

Biomass derivatives rarely have the purity and homogeneity that fossil feedstocks offer, and purification processes for bio-derived streams are particularly expensive as they involve distillation. Studying a transformation in a lab with a feedstock that is 99.9% pure may give some neat results and net you a prestigious paper, but impurities and mixtures are unavoidable in biomass processing and ignoring them ignores the point of the research. The challenge we face is transforming low cost bio-derived feedstocks into high-value derivatives with commercial applications without incurring expensive separation processes.

A number of organisations facilitate the often daunting process of developing partnerships with industry. My own experience with The Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry and the University of Liverpool’s Business Gateway led to my group working with Unilever, whose goals aligned with our research priorities. Industry links mean that our research has a real opportunity to turn bio-based feedstocks into real products used in households around the world. 

Academia and industry are doing fantastic work, but only by working together will we reduce the time it takes for research to have real-world benefits. Replacing oil-based sources not only safeguards against oil’s eventual exhaustion, it means lower annual carbon emissions and less demand on our diminishing natural resources. That’s something a researcher can really be proud of.

Jose Lopez-Sanchez is a lecturer in the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy at the University of Liverpool and director of a micro biorefinery research facility