From the Sugar Platform to biofuels and biochemicals

Abstract

Numerous potential pathways to biofuels and biochemicals exist via the sugar platform. This study uses literature surveys, market data and stakeholder input to provide a comprehensive evidence base for policymakers and industry – identifying the key benefits and development needs for the sugar platform.

The study created a company database for 94 sugar-based products, with some already commercial, the majority at research/pilot stage, and only a few demonstration plants crossing the “valley of death”.

Case studies describe the value proposition, market outlook and EU activity for ten value chains (acrylic, adipic & succinic acids, FDCA, BDO, farnesene, isobutene, PLA, PHAs and PE). Most can deliver significant greenhouse savings and drop-in (or improved) properties, but at an added cost to fossil alternatives.

Whilst significant progress has been made, research barriers remain around lignocellulosic biomass fractionation, product separation energy, biological inhibition, chemical selectivity and monomer purity, plus improving whole chain process integration.

An assessment of EU competitiveness highlights strengths in R&D, but a lack of strong commercial activity, due to the US, China and Brazil having more attractive feedstock and investment conditions. Further policy development, in particular for biochemicals, will be required to realise a competitive European sugar-based bioeconomy.

Executive Summary

There are a very large number of possible combinations of feedstock, pre-treatment options, sugars, conversion technologies and downstream processes that can be followed as potential pathways to make biofuels and biochemicals. This comprehensive study therefore sets out to map potential value chains based on the sugar platform, and assess them on their development status, economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability and market potential. Industry input was also gathered via two stakeholder workshops covering the competiveness of the EU industry vs other world regions, the key research gaps and possible policy developments. This study is therefore to act as an evidence base for policymakers and stakeholders to identify opportunities, their key benefits and development needs.

The IEA Bioenergy Task 42 Biorefinery Classification System was used for mapping different pathways. A high-level summary of the chains considered is shown below in Figure 1 – with nine detailed maps available within Section 2 of the report. The report is focused on a more limited (94) number of products, since the project scope covers routes that are under development with industry support, or already commercialised with the potential for growth.

Based on available literature, interviews and industry reports, a database of biochemical and biofuels companies was created, collecting names, countries, products made, process technology used, Technology Readiness Level (TRL), current total production capacity, location and type of facilities. Most R&D labs and pilot plants are located in Europe and North America, with North America having significantly more demonstration facilities. Asia (mainly China) has a good manufacturing base of high TRL products, and South America has a few early commercial projects.

TRLs and company results for all 94 products are given in Section 3. There are however 25 products of particular interest, given the level of industry activity, and as highlighted by US DOE’s “Top10” biochemicals and IEA Bioenergy Task 42 reports – the majority are primary products (first step after sugars), with some key intermediates added (e.g. ethylene). Figure 2 clearly shows the “valley of death” between those products at pilot or lab-scale (TRL 5 or lower), and another cluster of commercialised products (TRL 8-9).