We all know that plants are “carbon sequestration” factories that process CO2 and release O2. In a recently announced collaboration between Covestro (Leverkusen, Germany) and Genomatica (San Diego, CA), the companies aim to reduce the use of “fossil-based” resources in the chemicals and plastics industries. According to the announcement, the companies said that using carbon from plants, which they call a “sustainable raw material,” instead of fossil-based resources would help reduce CO2 emissions and close the carbon loop in another move toward a circular economy.
Covestro is one of the world’s largest polymers companies, with sales of €14.6 billion in 2018. It is focused on the manufacture of high-tech polymer materials and the development of innovative solutions for products used in many applications, primarily automotive, construction, furniture and electrical and electronic products.
Genomatica is a bioengineering firm that aims to lead a transition to more sustainable materials. To achieve that goal, the company develops biobased process technologies that enable the production of widely used chemicals from alternative feedstocks.
Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling commented, “We look forward to supporting Covestro in its efforts and providing our expertise in harnessing the power of biotechnology to bring much-needed change to many segments of the chemicals industry.”
However, the prospects for a European biobased economy are “very mixed” and the market is in a “critical phase,” according to an interview with Michael Carus, CEO of nova-Institute (Hürth, Germany). Transitioning the chemicals and plastics industries is proving to be “difficult,” said the release from nova-Institute. This is due in large part because a “clear political commitment is missing,” said nova-Institute. “To replace fossil carbon in the entire petrochemical industry, a new approach is needed. The biobased economy must become part of an overarching renewable carbon strategy, in which it represents a crucial pillar.”
Those areas not in direct competition with petrochemicals (fine chemicals and cellulose fibers, for example) are doing well, said Carus, who believes that replacing the entire petrochemical industry in the long-term is “technologically possible today” but not without “appropriate political flanking through quotas or taxes on fossil carbon.”
Carus noted that politicians “do not want to burn their fingers at chemistry,” and in spite of the “image problem” that the chemicals and plastics industries currently have, he believes they do not want to change their raw material base. Another obstacle to a biobased economy is the reluctance to use “food crops” to create chemicals and plastics, something he calls “politically taboo.”
To meet today’s huge demand for polymer materials would be impossible to do with biomass, Carus said. “Clearly we will not be able to cover today’s consumption of petrochemical goods, including fuel (with the expected growth rates) only by biomass,” he stated. However, he believes that a change in mobility—a switch to electric and hydrogen engines—will “free up biomass.”
In spite of the rosy picture painted by companies in Europe—and in the United States, for that matter—they are not making much headway in the pursuit of a biobased economy. Carus concedes that fact, saying that “while research and development are constantly developing and optimizing new biodegradable plastics, the European plastics strategy does not give them any credit in terms of contributing to sustainable development.