Germany’s Chemical Industry Looks at Switching to Biomass

Germany’s chemical industry — the world’s third biggest — depends on fossil fuels for its products. But a new research center to be built in Germany’s industrial heartland Leuna in Saxony Anhalt may help to change that.

The center will assist the chemical industry in its goal of building industrial biorefineries that will increase the use and consumption of biomass as a raw material. This will not only slash the region’s pollution but also cut the cost of importing oil.

Figuring out how to build these biorefineries, which can turn straw, wood, algae and other biomass into the kinds of raw material that can be used by the chemical industry in large volumes and at a low cost, will be the challenge of the Chemical Biotechnological Process Center (Chemisch-Biotechnologische Prozesszentrum, CBP).

The CHP, which is to be built this year in Leuna for EU €50 million [US $70.35 million] should be up and running by 2010, employing about 20 people at the start.

Twenty-two chemical companies and about as many universities and specialist research institutes have already signed on to work with research center. Together, they will find ways to scale up biomass conversion processes that have been successful at a laboratory level so that biomass can be used on an industrial scale as a renewable raw material for chemicals.

Researchers at CBP will focus on finding the technology and equipment that allows biomass from many different sources to be transformed into the kind of raw material the chemical industry requires.

“Our aim is to scale up processes that have been proven to work in the laboratory by developing the technical know how and the equipment,“ said Andreas Heitermann, managing director of InfraLeuna, a company that supports the chemical industry and is helping to set up the CBP.

Heitermann told that he expects biomass to have largely substituted fossil fuel for the production of chemicals in about ten years.

“The chemical industry in Germany already uses biomass for 5 to 10 percent of its products, but on a small scale. I expect it will take 3, 5 or 10 years depending on the raw material for biomass to be available for use on an industrial scale,“ he said.

The CBP will be the first center in the world to aggregate the competencies of industry, universities and research institutes to find and develop large-scale, commercially viable biorefinery processes.

Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart, which specialises in interfacial engineering and membrane technology as well as biotechnology, cell biology and bioprocess engineering, and from the Institute for Chemical Technology ICT will be among those helping to set up the CBP.

The Fraunhofer researchers in Stuttgart have recently found a way of using the Clostridium diolis bacteria to convert raw glycerol, a byproduct of  biodiesel produced from colza oil, into 1,3-propandiol, which can be used to produce polyester and paint.

The researchers have also found a way to convert the milk sugar or lactose in acid whey into lactic acid. This can be used to produce polylactides and biodegradable polymers.

“At the CBP, we won’t be doing any basic research. Our aims are very practical and related to the needs of industry. We’ll be looking at what equipment, plants and engineering know-how [the] industry needs to take biomass, refine it, break it down, convert it, separate it [and] clean it, and what chemical and biotechnological processes will be needed to convert it to materials for chemical products. To test out processes that have worked in laboratories on an industrial scale, there will be a number of biorefineries on the site,“ Heitermann said.

He said the soaring cost of fossil fuels was a factor driving chemical companies to investigate the use of biomass.

“In Leuna, we have an oil refinery that supplies the raw material for our products. The price of oil is going up and the industry is looking for an alternative,“ he said.

The chemical industry of Leuna, which employs 9,000 people, uses mainly petrochemicals to produce plastics, resins and other materials.

The industry plans to draw on the large amount of biomass available in Saxony Anhalt in the future.

“We can cut back on transport by drawing on the local biomass resources. Saxony Anhalt has a lot of agriculture and forests and lots of different types of biomass. Using biomass will also help protect the environment,“ Heitermann said.

He said it has been estimated that a million tonnes of lignocellulose is required to produce 100,000 tonnes of bioethanol.

However, Germany, while not blessed with sunshine, does have a massive forest and agricultural sector with large amounts of biomass available that does not compete directly with the food chain.

Almost one-third of Germany is covered in forests. With an estimated 3.4 billion m³, the country has the largest wood reserves in Europe. Sustainable forestry means that Germany’s forest stocks are growing with an additional 3,500  hectares added each year. It has been calculated that in Germany 2m³ of new wood grows every second, which is 165,000 m³ every day or 60 million m³ every year.

Biomass in the form of wood is already the most popular form of renewable energy to be used for heating in Germany, making up an 80 percent share, far ahead of plant oil with a 5% share, biogas with 3.8%, solar with 4.1% and geothermal with 2.6%.

Looking to the future, Heitermann expects Germany’s chemical industry to become a world leader in biorefinery technology thanks to the synergies of the emerging “Leuna” chemical-biotech cluster.

“I believe this technology will have huge export potential,“ he said.

Even if agricultural and forestry waste products are used to make chemicals around the world, there will still be plenty of biomass to go around to supply other energy needs.

On a cloudless day, 1000 watts of solar energy fall on every square meter of the earth’s surface. Even though trees and plants only assimilate and store a small fraction of that solar energy, they still manage to store 170 billion tonnes every year, which is the energy equivalent of the amount of oil produced each year multiplied by 25.

Forests, therefore, truly are “the biggest solar power plant” on earth.

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