2007/10/22

Biorefineries, Biofuels and Biochemicals

Biorefineries is currently a hot topic because biofuels are seen as a potential partial solution to national energy security and because of an interest in sustainable or 'green' products and businesses.

However, the issues related to maximum agricultural or forestry conversion of sunlight into energy leads me to conclude the most effective use of biorefineries in higher latitudes (above 35 or 40 degrees) will be for bio-products other than fuels or energy and for treatment of organic wastes. Significant amounts of biofuels will most cost-effectively be produced in climates with a maximum amount of annual sunlight using crops with a high conversion rate of solar energy into an energy form usable by industrial, commercial or consumer customers.

Because of concerns about oil supplies and prices related to energy or fuel, most biorefinery research, investment, government grants and government subsidies have been focused on biofuels or bioenergy. The true benefit for high latitude regions of all those bioenergy research and investment dollars put into biofuels is that they will pay for coincidentally developing bio-products other than biofuels.

Many chemicals and products people currently use and consider a normal part of everyday life were not available prior to the advent of the petroleum industry. All those products had to be invented and innovated (new products brought to the market in a profitable way) as part of the developing petrochemical industry sector. Although oil in various forms has been used by people for thousands of years, the first oil well in the US was not drilled until the 1850s. Until the 1950s, coal was the world's most common fuel. In 2007, the largest use of oil is for vehicle fuel, with combined fuel and energy consuming roughly 80% of the oil produced. All the chemicals listed in the Wikipedia article about petrochemicals had to be developed and brought to market by scientists, engineers and companies. Twenty-five or fifty years from now, a Wikipedia (or its successor) entry for "biochemicals industry sector" may well be amazingly similar to the one for petrochemicals.

The petrochemical sector is really a segment of the hydrocarbon chemical industry, as will be the biorefinery sector. Knowing the chemical reactions used in the petrochemical industry will give the biochemical companies a jump-start. Similarly, having 100 additional years of physics, chemistry, engineering and other types of knowledge the early petrochemical pioneers lacked will make the start-up curve much shorter for biochemical compared to petrochemical. Nanotechnology may also play a significant role in quick advances in the biochemical field.

The emerging biochemical industry brings opportunities for chemical engineers, chemists, biologists and botanists that have not been seen for many years. A huge question, though, is what role US scientists, engineers and companies will chose to take in shaping this emerging industry. Will they deny its importance and chose to either block its advance or ignore it, or will they whole-heartedly participate in developing sustainable biochemical products, processes and companies?

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