The chemical industry today is still primarily based on petroleum, a fossil raw material. Existing fully integrated modes of production have until now countered comprehensive structural transformation. The topic of sustainability, however, has become increasingly important, as a number of initiatives toward green chemistry have shown. Companies apply bio-based approaches above all when they save costs or improve product quality.
FACTS & FIGURES
No. of companies:
€191 billion (2014)
Examples of bioeconomy:
Bioplastics, bio-based platform chemicals, bio-based lubricants
The German chemical industry, with approximately 2,100 companies, is one of the most important basic pillars of the German economy. More than 400,000 are employed in this sector, and major, internationally active chemical groups such as BASF and Evonik have their headquarters in Germany. These companies also represent the majority of annual sector sales, at 186 billion euros in 2012. The product portfolio of the chemical industry is enormous and includes more than 30,000 products. The automobile industry is its largest customer, with around 40%.
Petroleum and natural gas are presently by far the most important raw materials in the chemical industry. In 2013 it consumed 17.3 million tons of fossil resources. Processed in large refineries and cracking plants, the various constituents of oil and gas serve as source material for production of plastics, adhesives, paint and much more. The top priority of companies in the chemical sector is efficiency. At so-called networked sites, waste products from one reaction often serve as raw materials for a subsequent process. Although the sector invests relatively great sums in research and development, experts see the great extent of integration in production as one reason why extensive transformation of the raw material basis can take place only slowly in the chemical industry. Bio-based processes therefore have the best opportunity if they can be integrated as a drop-in solution in existing facilities: raw materials from regenerative sources whose properties are identical to conventional, petroleum-based platform chemicals. Bio-based platform chemicals with new properties, however, also arouse interest: they open up new possibilities of utilization, because they can be applied in entirely different production stages and application areas. With respect to the environmental balance sheet, the development of new tools has likewise openednew ways in process technology. Benefits of bio-based approaches: like enzymes, microorganisms and bio-catalysers perform many reaction steps with great yield, and at room temperatures under normal pressure – instead of the many conventional chemical processes that typically take place under high pressure and at high temperatures. Around 60 predominantly small and medium-sized enterprises have specialized in this field of activity and are working on the development of technical enzymes and biotechnical production processes on the basis of microorganisms. These companies in industrial biotechnology have demonstrated growing sales in recent years, and the chemical sector – in addition to the food and pharmaceutical industries – is among their key customers. The high-tech tools of biotech companies often serve to optimize existing production steps or to establish new processes.
The majority of regenerative raw materials already used in the chemical industry are animal fats and plant oils from the fruit of palm, rape and soya plants. These oils and fats are further processed to bio-based tensides used in the cleaning and washing-agent industries, and in cosmetic products.
By supplying oil and grease, the chemical industry pro-vides the basis for the extensive product spectrum of lubricants. For recent years in Germany, annual domestic sales of lubricants have remained constant at just over 1 million tons. Commercially, bio-based approaches have until now played only a subordinate role. Their market share is around 3 % – primarily owing to their higher prices, but also because of ignorance of their use. Presently, the greatest uses of biolubricants are as oils for hydraulic systems, chain saws and for concrete form-work (see section “Mechanical engineering”). It is not, however, only from aspects of sustainability that biolubricants offer a series of benefits. In fact: they are often biologically degradable, they are non-toxic in many cases and – at least compared to petroleum-based products – they provide greater lubrication effectiveness. Current research work also includes efforts to expand the raw material basis of biolubricants. The company Danico, for example, has developed a process that uses sunflower oil as basis for biological high-performance lubricants.
Other companies are aiming at expanding the potential application areas of biolubricants. With funding from the BMEL, eight partner firms – under direction of the company Fuchs Europe Schmierstoffe GmbH in Mannheim – have begun to adapt bio-based lubricants for use in offshore wind parks. This Mannheim group also participates in the alliance Technofunctional Proteins, under leadership of Animox GmbH. The fourteen partners have invested 9 million euros in this alliance, with half of this amount coming from the BMBF. Objectives here involve not only new sources for biolubricants, but also for binding agents, paints and pigments. Every year in Germany, oil mills produce about 1.5 million tons of pressed residues from rapeseed plants that cannot be used for animal fodder. This residue provides the raw materials for the alliance. Researchers from Animox and the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV) in Freising, Germany, have attempted to extract proteins from this residue. Proteins, to be sure, exhibit many properties that would make them widely applicable – but the chemical industry lost sight of them long ago. The alliance has set as goal the establishment of proteins – in addition to previously used carbohydrates, greases and oils – as additional regenerative raw material in the chemical industry. Enzymes and hydrothermal processes can modify protein molecules such that they can serve as basic materials or additives for producers of biolubricants, adhesives, paints and pigments. The company Landshuter Lackfabrik – a paint producer – and the cleaning-agent specialist Vermop are also members of the alliance.
An even greater market for bio-based products results from the manufacture of plastics. These substances represent the second-largest product segment of the chemical industry and are for the most part now based on petroleum. They are used for a great number and variety of applications, primarily in the automotive industry. The share of bio-based processes, nevertheless, has increased steadily. Bioplastics, to be sure, are not new inventions. On the contrary: the very first industrially produced synthetic material was manufactured in 1869 and was a biomolecule: celluloid. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century, however, that the first plastics based on petroleum were invented. Beginning in 1956, large-scale production processes were initiated for the plastics polyethylene and polypropylene, which now dominate the market. Since then, the palettes of plastics for the many and various areas of application have continuously grown. Since the early 1980s, industry has once again focused attention on bioplastics. There are two basic, different types of bioplastics: first, biologically degradable plastics – which must not necessarily be produced from regenerative raw materials (there are also petroleum-based, biologically degradable plastics). On the other hand, there are bioplastics made of regenerative raw materials that are not necessarily biologically degradable.
Today, starch and cellulose are especially important starting materials for the production of bioplastics. Initially, starch-containing fruits such as maize and potatoes were used as raw materials, but research now concentrates on utilizing regenerative resources that do not compete with food production. This development has placed greater emphasis on substances such as chitin, chitosan and lignin – which occur as waste products in other areas of the economy, and which until now have hardly been used. These substances also include waste products from the food industry such as casein from milk that can no longer be sold, animal fat from abattoir waste and proteins from rapeseed processing.
Evonik, the specialized chemical group, also makes intensive use of regenerative raw materials for production of plastics. In 2013 this company opened a new production plant in Slovakia, where it produces bio-based gamma aminolaurin acid (ALS), an alternative to petroleum-based laurolactam. These two chemicals serve as starting materials for production of a particular polyamide type called PA12. Owing to their outstanding strength and toughness, polyamides are often used as construction materials. This synthetic is also used in the automotive industry, for household appliances and for sports articles. The pilot plant in Slovenska Lupca, Slovakia, is intended to promote process development for large-scale industrial application. At present, Evonik still uses palm kernel oil, but in later development stages it plans to use biological waste materials.
A research network funded by the BMEL pursues the objective of especially using rapeseed, a domestic oil plant, for production of plastics. The company Phytowelt GreenTechnologies GmbH in Nettetal, Germany, is coordinating this alliance – called System Biotechnology with use of Regenerative Raw Materials – which consists of 17 project partners. Participating companies come from throughout the value-added chain. A number of project partners have concentrated here on enhancing cultivation conditions for the source material needed for production. Other companies have focused on the mechanical harvesting of plant oils, and still others are responsible for promoting the conversion of raw materials into valuable chemicals. Members of this alliance include research facilities, small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporate groups.
Moreover, microorganisms as producers of bioplastics have become interesting, since they – as biological mini-factories – can use various natural raw materials as sources. This applies, for example, to the production of succinic acid. This chemical is an essential precursor product in the manufacture of plastics such as polybutylene succinate (PBS) and polyurethanes. It can also be used for the manufacture of nonwoven fabrics – which in turn are widely used for sport clothing, furniture and construction applications. In this context, BASF and the Dutch company Corbion Purac have carried out research in the field of bio-based succinic acid since 2009. A joint venture with headquarters in Dusseldorf was founded under the name Succinity GmbH, which plans to promote production and marketing of bio-based succinic acid. Joint efforts here succeeded in producing a dedicated microorganism: Basfia succiniciproducens, a microbe that enables flexible application of various raw materials sources. Thanks to a closed, cycle-based production system, moreover, it is possible to prevent major waste flow. Since 2014 a plant in Spain annually produces 100,000 tons of bio-based succinic acid, and an additional factory is already in planning.
BASF has not yet progressed so far with bio-based acrylic acid. This product serves as starting material for production of highly absorbent plastics such as used in sanitary articles and baby nappies. In 2013 BASF introduced a process that succeeded in producing on a pilot scale a key intermediate product for manufacture of bio-based acrylic acid: 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP). Bio-based succinic acid is also on the agenda of the steel producer Thyssen-Krupp. The company, through ThyssenKrupp Uhde GmbH, its business area for plant engineering and construction, built a production plant for bioplastics in Leuna, a site with a long refinery tradition. Thyssen-Krupp invested five years and more than 20 million euros for conversion work to produce the first European multi-purpose fermentation plant for continuous production of bio-based chemicals.
The ThyssenKrupp product portfolio includes not only succinic acid, but also lactic acid – a substance that forms the basis for the synthetic polylactic acid. The capacity in Leuna allows for annual production of more than 1,000 tons of succinic acid and lactic acid, as well as for testing on an industrial scale of fermentation and pre-processing techniques developed in the lab. The results, in turn, are applied for customers around the world. In the USA, ThyssenKrupp Uhde – together with the US company Myriant – operates a facility that currently produces 13,400 tons of bio-based succinic acid per year. As a result, a biorefinery research centre has by now become established in Central Germany that enjoys international recognition. Leuna forms the core of the BioEconomy Cluster launched by the BMBF in early 2012. More than 60 partners from science and business from Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt have concentrated their competence there in order to push the biorefinery concept. By now the French company Global Bioenergies also has a location at this site and carries out research on innovative methods of producing so-called light olefins. This entails platform chemicals: the starting points for production of numerous further products. Olefines include, for example, isobutene, propylene and butadiene. These substances could not until now be produced by bio-technological means, since the required metabolic paths do not exist in bacteria. By applying the methods of synthetic biology, the company Global Bioenergies has now developed new, artificial metabolic paths and has inserted genetic information for the required synthetic enzymes into E. coli strains. This new gas-generating fermentation process requires no distillation and therefore offers an enhanced environmental balance sheet. The BMBF has funded establishment of the required pilot facility in Leuna with approximately 5.7 million euros. This plant will include two 5,000-litre fermenters as well as a complete purification system – and will accordingly model all aspects of an industrial plant. The production capacity in Leuna of up to 100 tons of isobutene per year will enable offering this basic material to interested industrial companies for their own test purposes. Isobutene can, for example, be used for the production of plastics, elastomers and fuel. Sugar is still being used as bacteria nutrient, but plans are for the facility also to operate with agricultural residue. Over the coming three years, a comprehensive funding research program is planned to aid in the optimization of these processes.
At the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes (CBP) in Leuna, wood is broken down into its individual chemical constituents.