Can the biorefinery survive cheap oil? Opportunities for converting lignin to biobased chemicals.

09/29/2017 - 4:00pm to 4:50pm
Speaker(s) / Presenter(s): 
Joseph Bozell
The economic viability of the petrochemical industry is predicated on the simultaneous production of chemicals and fuels, with high volumes of low value fuel addressing the strategic energy needs of the US, and high value chemicals providing the industry’s critical economic foundation. This operational model would be ideal for the growing biorefining industry, but even after years of effort, biofuels remain the biorefinery’s primary focus, as the breadth and sophistication of technology for biobased chemical production lags far behind that of the petrochemical industry. Further, the recent precipitous drop in oil prices and the development of new sources of non-renewable raw materials further threatens to marginalize the biofuel industry as a minor player in energy production. Thus, the incorporation of chemical products as part of the biorefinery’s overall manufacturing strategy becomes even more important, but the choices of targets to be pursued must also demonstrate a good fit with the context set by the current petrochemical industry. Equally important is the ability to demonstrate that the chemical targets chosen and the necessary methodology for their production can adapt to this unexpected shift in the chemical industry. This presentation will provide a brief situational analysis of the interplay between current energy prices, biorefinery development and choice of chemical targets. Efforts to develop technology tailored to fit within this scenario for the conversion of renewable building blocks to high value chemicals able will also be described. Efforts to better understand the structure of lignin will enable expanded use of a valuable source of carbon. Alternative systems navigate the multiple substructural units present in lignin, and afford new oxidation chemistry using environmentally benign reagents. We will overview this work and discuss how its inclusion within a larger fuel/chemical production scenario can help enable a successful and viable biorefining industry.
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