Green Matter: The bioeconomy as an innovation strategy - making it work

April 18, 2013

Cologne, Germany—What happens when a group of around 175 experts in bioplastics and industrial biotechnology from around the world gather together in a hotel for a three-day conference focused on the biobased economy in Germany and the U.S.?

A major meeting of minds, opinions and heated discussion on topics ranging from the carbon cycle to green composites ballistics applications, that's what. The speakers and attendees at nova-Institute's 6th International Conference on Industrial Biotechnology and Bio-based Plastics & Composites were a mixture of German and U.S. policy representatives, industrial companies and academia. Green chemistry

Manufacturers of bioplastics - Tecnaro, FKuR, NatureWorks, Biotec - were present, next to a number of major players in the chemical industry. A cheering development: while green chemistry and biopolymers may still have only a niche position in the market, when major companies like Bayer, Dupont, BASF, Clariant and Evonik participate, it's a sign that attitudes about bioplastics are undergoing a major shift.

As one speaker, Rina Singh, from the U.S.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, pointed out "green chemicals and plastics are increasingly being built into portfolios", while "retail market pull  - think Walmart, Proctor & Gamble - is driving demand." To which Manfred Kircher, of the German academic CLIB-Graduate Cluster Industrial Biotechnology added that industrial drivers, such as the industry's need to reduce dependence on fossil feedstock, were also helping to "push the bioeconomy in Europe". Biofeedstock broadens feedstock flexibility, he said although "the cost must come down. The bioeconomy will only succeed if we don't need to pay a premium."

The need to develop alternative (and non-food ) sources of feedstock was also a recurring theme throughout the conference.

Ramani Narayan (Biobased Material Research Group, Michigan State University) eloquently explained what the real problem was with using what he called a 'depleting feedstock' like oil. Not only are fossil feedstocks finite, their use disturbs the carbon cycle, which naturally regulates the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. As Narayan said: "Nature does a great job. It's in balance." However, using the carbon stored in fossil resources  - "old carbon" - causes an imbalance in this system. He argued "the rate and time scale of carbon fixation balance carbon use, and that the rate and time scale of CO2 utilization is in balance using bioproducts instead of fossil resources." Unlike petroleum-based carbon, biobased carbon is "new carbon" that is cycled by nature over a period of 1 - 10 years.

To understand the true impact on the environment throughout the life cycle of a product, it is important to consider the origin of the carbon. Narayan drew a distinction between what he called material carbon, or "Kg of CO2 per 100 kg resin", and process carbon, defined as "Kg of CO2 released per 100 kg resin". Material carbon from biobased feedstocks can be managed by the natural carbon cycle; petro-based material carbon cannot. The value proposition of biobased feedstocks is thus a "zero material carbon footprint". Renewable biomass feedstocks are therefore vital for carbon footprint reduction.

In this context, Erin Simon, from the World

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