Biomass-Fed Chemical Process Projects, 2016

December 7, 2016 |

cookerBy Dr. Bernard Cooker, Chemical Processing Solutions

Special to The Digest

This is a review of the biomass-fed chemical process projects to renewable chemicals which were published in Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP) and Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) from 1/1/16 to 10/31/16, including activity in bioplastics, biopolymers and biochemicals.

It is based on a spreadsheet database of published information from CEP and C&EN, which has been maintained since 2013. All projects using biomass to manufacture a product and all process projects fed an intermediate produced from biomass are included in the database. It includes all projects regardless of scale, from laboratory (< 1 liter), through pilot (1 liter to <500 gallons), to commercial scale (>500 gallons). The database has the following data for each project: a unique reference number, the published data source, the raw material(s), the product(s), the estimated scale, its production capacity, the entities  undertaking the project, its location by country, any financial investment or sales revenue and brief notes on the process technology. Unknown attributes are denoted NA.

The database contains 440 projects, from 9/1/13 to 10/31/16. For this article, all the projects from 1/1/16 to 10/31/16 were reviewed. Within this subset, 94 projects convert biomass to named products and 40 projects convert a biomass-derived intermediate to a named product. This article surveys the distributions of projects in the first group only, relative to: raw material, product, scale of project and location by country. This survey is limited by the restrictions on the information in the articles on which it is based: some source articles, perhaps through confidentiality, refer to “biomass” as the raw material and other articles refer to “chemicals” or “biochemicals” as the products.

Raw Material Distribution


Fig. 1 shows the groups of biomass raw materials as percentages of the 94 projects. Four categories dominate the distribution: “biomass” (21%), wood (16%), oils (12%) and lignocellulosic biomass (12%), totaling 61% of the projects. Secondary biomass sources, each with a small number of projects, include corn and corn stover, algae, dandelions, chicken manure, grass and forest waste, accounting for 22% of the total projects. See Fig. 1. The “Other” category contains the remaining projects, each raw material accounting for only one or two projects: waste, municipal solid waste, citrus peel, waste oil, sugar cane bagasse, waste seafood, sugar beet residue, fungi, jellyfish, guar legume, cotton plant residue, wheat bran, agave and recycled cotton fabric. Twenty five distinct biomass raw material sources are named in the publications surveyed for this group, constituting great variety over a wide range.

Product Distribution


Fig. 2 shows the distribution of products from the 94 biomass-fed projects. The database contains 40 different named products from the articles, in the time period 1/1/16 to 10/31/16. The six leading categories are polymers, rubber (15%), lignin, lignin sulfonate (11%), food products (7%), “chemicals” (6%), BTX (benzene/toluene/xylene) (6%) and dicarboxylic acids (6%), accounting for 51% of all the projects. The remaining categories are as follows: alcohols, not ethanol (5%), oils (5%), ethanol (5%), fuels (4%), sugar (3%) and biogas (3%), accounting for 25% of all the projects. The “Other” category in Fig. 2 accounts for the remaining cases, which include ammonium phosphate, collagen, composites, dye, farnesene, gum, hydrochar, isobutene, pectin and a pesticide.

Note that sugars and ethanol, which were significant products in the biomass-fed arena 2 to 5 years ago, in terms of projects, are minor players in Fig. 2, relative to the dominant categories of polymers and elastomers, lignin and lignosulfonate, food products, BTX and carboxylic acids. These have potentially higher added value than sugars, ethanol, fuels and biogas and they may be more profitable products.



Fig. 3 presents the project scale data for the 94 biomass-fed projects, sorted into laboratory (19 projects, 20%), pilot (16 projects, 17%) and commercial (52 projects, 55%). Seven projects had an indeterminate scale of operation. Usually, the number of projects in a given technical area declines from laboratory to pilot to commercial scales, as lack of technical feasibility and process economic analysis take their toll.  Fig. 3 shows normal decline in project numbers from laboratory (19) to pilot (16) scales but the commercial scale category dominates the distribution, with 55% of the 94 projects which were biomass-fed. One or more of the following factors probably affected the reported data in Fig. 3:

1. Commercial scale projects, as major components of business development, may receive much more publicity and dissemination of information than smaller scale projects.

2. Laboratory scale and pilot scale projects may be deliberately kept secret because of active innovation and patent application.

3. Some commercial scale projects in the source articles are announcements of an intention to develop the technology to commercial scale. This does not guarantee actual project execution.

Ref. 1 found and discussed the same qualitative pattern of project scale distribution for Q3, 2013 to Q2, 2015.

Location by Country


The geographical distribution of the 94 biomass-fed projects is in Fig. 4. The U.S. dominates, with 45% of the projects, and Canada (11%) and Italy (5%) being the next most prominent. Finland, India, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands and the U.K. share in 14% of the total projects. The “Others” category (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Madagascar, Malaysia, Poland, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland) each account for one project and 14% of the total projects as a category. The U.S. dominance of Fig. 4 is probably due to the following factors:

1. The world class university research in biochemistry and biotechnology in the U.S.

2. The availability of commercial quantities of biomass raw materials, including corn stover, forest products and municipal solid waste, with a cost-effective transportation infrastructure.

3. The availability of significant private venture capital in conjunction with financial grants from Federal and State governments, promoting start-ups and small companies in the biotechnology area.

See ref. 1, where the dominance of the U.S. in a previous review of biomass-based processes for Q4, 2013 to Q2, 2015, was also found.


This article illustrates how the database of 440 project entries on biomass-based chemical processes can be used to review major features of the most recent entries on biomass-fed process projects, from 1/1/2016 to 10/31/2016. Much more information can be extracted from the database, which can be searched, for example, for specific company names, financial data, raw materials and products. The biomass-based chemical process industry is clearly broadly based in its raw materials, 25 named biomass sources having been found in the 2016 data. This survey found 40 named products from the 94 biomass-fed projects. The ranges of raw materials and products are broad. This bodes well for the industry in that many raw materials are being explored, promoting potential flexibility of supply, and the wide product spectrum represents corresponding potential opportunities for sales and profit.

The distribution of recent biomass-derived products indicates strong interest in chemical conversion beyond sugars, ethanol, biogas and fuels, towards higher value added and more profitable products, such as polymers, and more valuable intermediates, such as dicarboxylic acids, for use as monomers in polymer synthesis. Regarding biomass-fed processes in 2016, the U.S. has 45% of the projects. Other countries are minor players by comparison.


1. “Recent Biomass-Fed Chemical Process Projects: A Review”, B. Cooker, Poster at AIChE/SBE Workshop, “Challenges and Opportunities in Commercializing Industrial Biotechnology”, San Diego, CA, 28 – 29 September, (2015)

Contact the author

Bernard Cooker can be found at [email protected]

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