You may not realize it, but you likely use products made from biomass—organic plant, algae, and waste material—every day. It’s found in personal care items, drink containers, nutritional supplements, and fuel.
All these products are helping to grow our bioeconomy—a term used to describe the addition of abundant, sustainable, domestic biomass to the U.S. economy. Their manufacture also increases U.S. energy security and supports American jobs.
So, where does the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) fit into this equation? DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is partnering with industry, universities, and National Laboratories to improve the technologies that produce these homegrown bioproducts.
Each time you fill-up at the gas station, you are likely pumping biofuels into your tank. More than 98% of gasoline in the United States contains some ethanol, a renewable, domestically produced fuel made from different plant materials. The United States is the world’s No. 1 ethanol producer by volume, thanks in part to large U.S. corn harvests.
Ethanol is typically blended with gasoline to increase octane and cut down on air pollution. It also plays a role in reducing our dependence on imported oil, extending the supply of U.S. gasoline, and stimulating the economy. In 2019 alone, the production of more than 16 billion gallons of ethanol accounted for more than 68,600 direct jobs in the United States, $43 billion in gross domestic product, and $23 billion in household income.
The aviation industry is also taking biofuels to new heights. BETO sponsored an award-winning research project that involved the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Skokie, Illinois-based LanzaTech, which can recycle industrial waste gas from steel making and other heavy processes and convert it to a revolutionary form of jet fuel with dramatically reduced levels of emissions. A portion of the petroleum-derived jet fuel onboard a Boeing 747 was displaced by renewable jet fuel for an intercontinental flight between Orlando International Airport in Florida to London’s Gatwick International in October 2018. The project received awards from the Innovation Research Interchange in 2019 and the Federal Laboratory Consortium in 2020.
2. Cosmetics and Perfumes
Biobased feedstocks can be used to produce a range of personal care products, such as skin cream, shampoo, mascara, and more. For example, the acetone in your nail polish remover can be produced by fermenting plant sugars, while the palmitic acid that gives your hair that glossy shine after you condition is one of the most common saturated fatty acids found in microorganisms and plants. Public demand has renewed industry interest in biobased cosmetics, and innovations in biotechnology are making these products cheaper and more efficient to manufacture. The personal care ingredients market topped $15 billion in 2019, with biobased resources accounting for about 20% of that amount.
3. Food Additives and Nutritional Supplements
Algae are big-time oil producers capable of generating up to 5,000 gallons of oil per acre. The oil collected from algae can be converted into renewable fuels or used in a variety of applications. For example, a number of nutritional supplement brands are extracting omega-3 fatty acids, typically found in fish oils, directly from algae. In addition, some food flavors can also trace their source back to biomass. Lignin, an organic substance that gives plants their strong structural support, can be converted into renewable chemicals for the flavor industry. Spero Energy developed a process that sustainably breaks down woody biomass and converts lignin into chemicals that can be used to flavor smoky-tasting foods like barbecue chips.
4. Detergents and Cleaning Products
The power of detergents and cleaners lies in their ability to remove unwanted material from surfaces. They owe this unique characteristic to two classes of chemicals—surfactants and solvents—both of which can be produced from biomass. These biobased chemicals are found in laundry detergents, spray cleaners, and other cleaning products. For example, Sironix Renewables is working on developing a class of biobased surfactants known as oleo-furan surfactants that may increase the biodegradability of detergents reducing their impact on wastewater treatment processes.
Sironix has received funding from BETO to work with Los Alamos National Laboratory to screen potential catalysts that could increase the selectivity of reactions to develop known surfactants and speed up the process of synthesizing new surfactant candidates. These chemicals can be used in detergents or other cleaning products and may also decrease the volume required for cleaning, which can reduce packaging needs.
5. Plastics and Other Materials
Biobased plastics can provide the same variety and reliability of traditional plastics but are manufactured from renewable, plant-based material. Some companies have already started to integrate these new materials into their product lines. For example, BETO funded Virent Inc’s BioForming™ technology to convert plant material into a synthetic substance that can be used to produce clothing fibers and containers for liquids. Coca-Cola is using this technology to offer consumers its 100% renewable and recyclable PlantBottle™.
Biobased plastics may even help cut down on waste. Some companies, such as Mango Materials, are working to develop biodegradable/compostable biobased plastics that will break down more quickly and decay into natural materials.
Biobased chemicals, products, and fuels represent an opportunity to produce renewable and sustainable U.S.-manufactured products. Biobased products offer the same performance as their traditional counterparts and, thanks to advances in scientific innovation, they are being produced more cost-effectively and efficiently—helping to promote a more prosperous future.