The 10 green chemicals driving a disruptive new biobased industry

July 9, 2018 |

A Petro Brexit (a/k/a, British companies exiting petroleum for the sustainable bioeconomy) : New report highlights how to ensure Britain becomes a world leader in bio-based chemicals

In the UK, a recent report identifies 10 specific bio-based chemicals, in order to boost industrial growth, jobs, trade and investment in the UK. The report comes from  LBNet, sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council  in consultation with leading biotechnology and chemistry experts from business, academia and the public sector.

And just now, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) published a summary report for its workshop on Moving Beyond Drop-In Replacements: Performance-Advantaged Biobased Chemicals, that took place on June 1, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. At this workshop, BETO gathered stakeholder input on the research and development (R&D) necessary for novel biobased compounds and functional replacements. That summary report can be viewed via our Multi-Slide Guide here.

The UK Report

The 10 bio-based chemicals were agreed based on commercial viability, UK strengths to exploit, functionality and sustainability. They are:

1. Lactic acid: Used to make PLA, which can be used for biodegradable plastics

2.  2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA): A stronger alternative to PET, which is used to make plastic bottles, food packaging and carpets

3.  Levoglucosenone: A safer alternative to toxic solvents used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, flavors and fragrances.

4. 5 Hydroxymethyl furfural (HMF): A building block for plastics and polyesters

5. Muconic acid: It’s derivatives could replace non-sustainable chemicals used in the production of plastics and nylon fibres

6. Itaconic acid: A replacement for petroleum-based acrylic acid, used to make absorbent materials for nappies; and resins used in high-performance marine and automotive components.

7. 1,3-Butanediol: A building block for high value products including pheromones, fragrances, insecticides, antibiotics and synthetic rubber

8. Glucaric acid: Prevents deposits of limescale and dirt on fabric or dishes, providing a green replacement for phosphate-based detergents

9. Levulinic acid: Used in the production of environmentally friendly herbicides, flavor and fragrance ingredients, skin creams and degreasers

10. n-Butanol: Used in a wide range of polymers and plastics, as a solvent in a wide variety of chemical and textile processes and as a paint thinner

The report also recommended five policy steps to ensure that the UK moves from research to commercial products, “an area where the UK traditionally fails,” the report said, after pointing to the UK’s “important research lead in these chemicals, and the infrastructure and global supply chains to exploit them.”

1. Focus time and resources on these chemicals, and review focus regularly

2. Support partnerships and networks which link universities, SMEs and industry around bio-based chemicals

3. Focus research funding on developing cost-effective ways to produce these chemicals

4. Build UK biochemical testing and scale-up capabilities

5. Incentivize use of bio-based chemicals by leading by example and mandating bio-based materials in government procurement

Comparing this UK list to the 2004 DOE list

A 2004 survey, completed by staff led by Gene Petersen and Todd Werpy, at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and NREL, is the Dark Side of the Moon of biobased, a perennial classic that has recorded more than 170,000 downloads to date via the Digest SuperData, alone, and identified 12 bio-based chemicals that appeared to have stronger prospects than the rest for commercialization.

They were (we’ve highlighted in bold the molecules on both lists):

Four Carbon 1,4-Diacids (Succinic, Fumaric, and Malic)

2,5-Furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA)

3-Hydroxypropionic acid (3-HPA)

Glucaric acid


Aspartic acid

Itaconic acid


Sorbitol (Alcohol Sugar of Glucose)

Xylitol/arabinitol (Sugar alcohols from xylose and arabinose)

Glutamic acid

Levulinic acid

We highlighted the progress (then) to date with the DOE 12, in The DOE’s 12 Top Biobased Molecules – what became of them?, here.

The DOE’s 12 Top Biobased Molecules – what became of them?

Reaction from stakeholders

“Bio-based chemicals are set to disrupt the chemicals industry” said LBNet Network Director Simon McQueen-Mason. “It is important that the UK – a global leader in chemicals – is at the heart of that revolution. If we don’t support such breakthrough technology now, other countries will benefit from our research and out-compete us, whilst our existing chemicals industry loses its edge.”

“Just as oil underpinned the development of now ubiquitous plastics, textiles, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics in the last century, bio-based chemicals are set to replace oil in many products in the next few decades.  Investment and policy support now will allow the UK to be a leader in this emerging industry.”

The Bottom Line

An important list not only for the UK and Europe but around the world — what molecules make the most sense. There are thousands that could be made from biobased processes, and commercialization benefits from focus, so this is a laudable piece of work. Not that bringing forth renewable chemicals in head to head competition with petroleum chemicals is for the faint of heart — especially in these times where so much support seems to go to propping up existing industry instead of aiming at the future. 

However, we’ve seen time and again that tax credits or other incentives aimed at finished products transfer much of their value into the supply chain in the form of feedstock prices — for example, the value of yellow grease has soared in an era of legislation aimed at commercializing biodiesel — and the result has been that biodiesel producers have become dangerously dependent on tax policy to be commercially viable, while grease purveyors have seen boom times.

Incentives aimed at industry will have to reward industry, and consumers, via help on price — biobased feedstock providers get enough benefit as it is from new markets.

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