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 even fuel.
All of these things are helping to grow our bioeconomy—a term used to describe the integration of abundant, sustainable, domestic biomass in the U.S. economy—and support American jobs.
So where does the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) fit into this equation?
DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is behind the scenes, 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 97% of gasoline in the United States contains some ethanol, a renewable, domestically produced fuel made from different plant materials. 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 2016 alone, the production of more than 15 billion gallons of ethanol put more than $22.5 billion into the pockets of Americans and supported nearly 340,000 U.S. jobs. Additionally, cellulosic ethanol is becoming available. In 2016, 3.8 million gallons were sold.
The aviation industry is also taking biofuels to new heights. Most major airlines are now blending renewable fuels into many routine commercial flights. Government and industry initiatives like Farm to Fly 2.0 aim to increase the U.S. supply of these drop-in biofuels that could help reduce costs for airlines.
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 size is projected to reach $17.3 billion by 2022, with biobased resources likely to take up a significant segment of the industry.
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 a soiled surface. 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, Procter & Gamble and DuPont announced plans to use cellulosic ethanol as a solvent in one of their laundry detergents, Tide Coldwater Clean.
DuPont has received funding from BETO to work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to research its conversion technology. This led to DuPont constructing the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa. The ethanol for Tide Coldwater Clean is sourced from this facility, which works with 500 local growers to establish a high-quality, cost-effective, and sustainable supply of corn stover (corn cobs, leaves, and stalks) to repurpose more than 7,000 tons of agricultural waste.
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. Many companies are already starting 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. Now, Coca-Cola, is using this technology to offer consumers its 100% renewable and recyclable PlantBottle™.
Biobased plastics may even help cut down on waste. Many 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. They 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.