Bioproducts

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Plastic packing materials can be manufactured from biomass-derived polyethylene terephthalate. | Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr creative commons license.

Plastic packing materials can be manufactured from biomass-derived polyethylene terephthalate. | Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr creative commons license.

An emerging area of research for the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office’s (BETO’s) portfolio is bioproducts that can enable biofuels production. Up to 16% of U.S. crude oil consumption is used to make chemicals and products, such as plastics for industrial and consumer goods, contributing an added value of $812 billion to the U.S. economy.  Many products derived from petrochemicals could be supplemented with biomass-derived materials. In some cases, the unique properties of biomass may provide advantages for efficiently producing new biomass-derived chemicals. BETO is supporting research and development of these bio-advantaged products.

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There are many types of strategies that BETO can invest in to encourage bioproduct production. These strategies include investing in products that enable and support existing biorefineries (e.g., biogas conversion, acid pretreated lignin), investing in products that enable the operation of future biorefineries based on current research projections (e.g., alkaline lignin), and investing in products that are manufactured in stand-alone facilities intended to help de-risk biorefineries through lessons learned (e.g., products that enable the construction of supply systems/depots).

Enabling a diverse product slate from a biorefinery, especially by valorizing materials that are currently waste products, can substantially reduce risks associated with early biofuel plants and biorefineries. Production of bioproducts can also significantly de-risk the upstream infrastructure and processes needed for biofuels by providing an increased economic incentive for the construction of pioneer biorefineries. 

The production of bioproducts relies on much of the same feedstocks, infrastructure, feedstock commoditization, and technologies that are central to biofuels production; the difference between producing a biofuel or a bioproduct may be in the upgrading of the deconstructed biomass intermediate. For example, cellulosic sugars are an intermediate for manufacturing either biofuel or bioproducts. Due to their similarities, the knowledge gained from producing bioproducts can be readily transferred to biofuels, and bioproducts can be a means to develop the platform technologies potentially leading to fuels. Furthermore, there are major challenges associated with biomass feedstocks and any lessons learned will be useful—regardless of whether the final products are biofuels or bioproducts.

Once technologies are proven for bioproducts applications, they could greatly improve biofuels production. For example, there are biomass pretreatment technologies that are considered prohibitively expensive for biofuels and are not investigated. However, the pretreatment technologies could potentially produce cleaner pretreated feedstocks for conversion and reduce conversion and separations costs. Bioproducts provide a venue to explore high-risk, high-reward solutions that could be applicable to biofuels. 

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