Renewable Raw Material for Chemical Technical Products

Conversion of Biomass in the Non-Energy Fields

(c) Dr. Hermann Fischer / Dipl.Chem. Hanswerner Mackwitz

Production Process and Building of Structures

The main principle of the economic process in all societies is the production of high priced goods from low priced raw materials ('net value added'). Normally the production process runs from the primary raw material to the usable product not in one single step, but in a linear chain of connected single processes ('product line').

The single steps of a production process are characterized by the fact that during the process the structural order of the object ('syntropy') is growing. To speak in terms of physics: the entropy of the economic good is decreasing. This principle of production by building material structures of high order is applicable for simple manufacturing processes (e.g. the way from the tree seed via the tree trunk, the sawed lumber to the ready piece of furniture) as for complex industrial product lines (e.g. from the ore winning via the smelting process, the sheet rolling, folding press to the final car body).

In modern societies with their division of labor the single chain links of the production chains are widely separated in space and time. So a relatively narrow production depth remains for the single production company. The separation of the product lines can bring advances in productivity. On the other hand, the anonymity of the individual steps may mean that we lose sight of the total ecological impact associated with the products over its entire product line. Therefore we may fail to realize that the ecological damage is transferred from the finished product itself to earlier stages, or to the usage or disposal stage.

So modern ecologically conscious management of material flow concentrates on the responsibility of the industrialist not only for his own product but for all stages of the product line, even beyond the factory's gates ('from cradle to grave'). To be sure to have a safe and environment friendly product we have to be given the guarantee of a safe and friendly product line as a whole. Even the question how far the starting point and the end point of the product line could be connected (material cycle) or if they end in the unknown (persistence, waste dump burden) has to be checked by every producer of a really ecologically sound product. They have to implement these aspects even in the planning and design of their product (see below) .

Synthesis Processes of Chemical Technical Products

Everyday products of the organic chemistry like plastics, paints, coatings, floorings, textiles, detergents etc. are paradigmatic for the complex production chains of the type mentioned. They are still based 95% on crude oil as a primary material source. Since the physical chemical properties of the ingredients of crude oil are completely inadequate in respect to the desired everyday final products they have to undergo highly complex reaction chains with long lasting chemical conversion processes. The carbohydrates from the crude oil with their low structural order and chaotic mixture are to be changed into molecules of high structural order, e.g. the mass-produced plastic polyurethane.

The chemical conversion of crude oil to a useful chemical everyday product - like any structure building process - does not take place voluntarily, but only by investing high amounts of energy. Today, this energy is delivered nearly 100% from power plants based on fossil or nuclear energy supplies. So the entire process has to be balanced between the high order structure of the synthesized material on the one hand and the extremely low order material residues of the power production process (e.g. fumes like CO2, H2O, SO2 etc.) on the other. The bad news is: the increase in structural order on one side is by far overcompensated by the loss of order on the other side. The net effect of these coupled processes with any conventional petrochemical product line is an unavoidable increase in entropy.

In addition synthesis processes of the organic chemistry result inevitably in the generation of numerous by-products on every reaction stage because of the surplus energy within the reaction system.

Even though the chemical industry has made considerable efforts to lower the amount and toxicity of these by-products, the laws of physical chemistry and the economic framework set specific limitations. As already for years many important product lines of the organic chemistry have left behind huge mountains of hazardous toxic waste. The example of a material balance sheet of a widely used azo pigment shown below may not be representative of the average of all chemical products, but it is not a single case.

The overwhelming flood of by-products is a main part of the global burden of xenobiotic substances. So they cause great concern to critical toxicologists. Cataloguing and gross assessment of health risks through these chemical substances take up a lot of research and time. But this time requirement is in stark contrast to the fact

that a never ending stream of new, physiologically unknown chemicals is released from the laboratories of universities and the industry.

Problems like that are unknown to the natural processes of synthesis. In the course of the evolution principles of structure building have been developed without maximizing efficiency in using the solar energy received. Instead, nature found a way of intense linking and networking numerous material cycles (e.g. citric acid cycle). By that, high surplus energies and undesirable, ecologically harmful by-products can be avoided.

The use of crude oil as a source for the synthesis of everyday products is incompatible with the demand for sustainable development for one more reason. As experts from the petrochemical industry have to admit, the stock of this still predominating resource of organic chemistry will finally be exhausted within only a few decades. The chemist Erwin Schwanhold (MP and president of the 'enquete commission' of the German Parliament on material flow management) recently stressed the dramatic discrepancy between the production and consumption of this key raw material of our modern industrial society.

Chemical Products from Renewable Raw Material

Searching for alternatives for the oust petroleum era (that means the generation of our children) we should, above all, use nature's strategies of building substances. These strategies have proven their efficiency, environment friendliness and sustainabilty for hundreds of millions of years. Nature's methods of synthesis perfectly match the requirements of a limited globe.

In a time when we realize the limitation of our planet more and more, the usage of the global biomass as raw material for our everyday products proves to be a question of survival for humankind. Ever more forward looking scientists, like the biologist Berndt Heydemann (professor and former minister of environment of Schleswig-Holstein) point out the im-portance of such a conversion from petrochemistry to plant chemistry.

Only raw material from renewable re-sources can satisfy the global need for organic substances in the long run. Especially the decentralized cultivation of modern industrial raw material by methods of controlled organic farming shows the advantages of such a usage of biomass for non energy purposes. The material flow diagram of an important raw material - linseed oil - for the production of ecologically sound paints and coatings clearly shows these relationships.

What is important for the usage of biogenic raw materials is not only their principally unlimited supply due to their ability to renew themselves. The fact that products made of these raw materials can return to the cycle after usage without problems and without residues - this fact is of similar importance. It follows that not only the sources, but also the material dumps are unlimited. But the main condition for the preservation of this capability is to avoid intervention in the intact molecular structure of the biomass - or to perform only minor chemical manipulation, so that the molecular structures are quickly and accurately be 're-cognized' by the degradating micro-organisms. For that reason, before trying to manipulate the chemical identity of a given biogenic material one should search for a different renewable raw material that fits the desired structural and physical chemical properties without further manipulation.

In fact the structural abundance of living nature around us is so far known to us only in small fractions. It is definitely high time to stop the global destruction of biotops radically. By ongoing extermination of species we rob ourselves of the most important wealth on our globe: the great variety of evolutionary principles adapted perfectly to the building of material structures of high order (in-cluding ourselves as humans).

As mentioned above, it always requires large amounts of energy to transform raw material with low structural order to finished products with high order. In the case of plant raw material the energy for this synthesis solely comes from the sun. That means one more important difference to the petrochemical products: biogenic material, organically grown in the surrounding area of the factory, leads to significant reductions of energy consumption along the whole product line.

The large increases in entropy during synthesis due to the energy production in power plants do not exist in natural plants: the entropy production takes place in the sun itself - without any consequences for our planet.

The link between the solar flow of syntropy for the building of high order structures in our biosphere and the basis for sustainable development has been expressed convincingly by the physicist Hans Peter Dürr (President of the Max Planck Institute and awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize).

Also in respect to the generation of by-products the synthesis of plant raw material for the industry has an advantage over today`s methods to synthesize matter in chemical retorts. Each product of the plant secondary metabolism has its natural function in the environment. None of these products are accumulated in the environment. The ecologically adapted creation of biomass has never damaged the basis for biomass production. Scientists of the UPI Institute in Heidelberg expressed this singular quality of the production system 'biosphere' in impressing figures.

A comparison shows these two completely different principles of using carbon sources as a basis for organic synthesis: petrochemistry on the one side and plant chemistry on the other.

No doubt: the achievements of chemists in the last 140 years since the beginning of the chemical industry are highly admirable and have brought comfort, wealth and practical benefit to many people. But now the era of this type of chemistry is inevitably coming to an end.

The signs are becoming more and more obvious: the processes of synthesis in the biosphere are much better able than petrochemistry to guarantee health, cultural development and an intact environment on our planet. Future chemistry has to model itself on the ideal of nature. It will have to use nature's achievements of synthesis - called biomass - as far as possible. The foreseeable exhaustion of resources and dumps will simplify our decision at these crossroads between the two production strategies for our everyday chemical needs. Increasing numbers of small and medium sized companies have been starting to convert these principles of using biogenic raw material to practical usable products. They act as pioneers, but at the same time they are on the market with numerous innovative and competitive goods.

shows a small part of these products, which substitute petrochemicals. Even the big companies of the chemical industry are starting to show interest. We all hope that the further development of plant chemistry will imitate the successful example of nature. That means: it must be decentral, autarchic, pluralistic and lively.

Summary and Outlook

The usage of biomass for energetic purposes can be an important relief for our environment. But wherever possible, one should use the high structural level of the biogenic raw material directly for our everyday needs. Would it not be grotesque if we burned vegetable carbon sources to use the energy released from that process to feed the energy requirements of chemical synthesis?

Biogenic raw materials make available a broad spectrum of substances with every conceivable property. It can be predicted that nearly all ranges of today's petrochemicals will be replaced by environmental friendly, biogenic materials from closed cycles without considerable loss of technical quality. Numerous examples have been tested and applied in practice. They demonstrate the great efficiency of renewable raw materials. Of course we must build up the new production structures with care. Far from creating new centralized monopolies, the future of biomass production lies in regional, certified organic farming and processing units with as much variety as possible. Let me conclude with a phrase of a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. He should be able to make an unemotional comparison between the methods of synthesis in nature and the methods in chemistry - without being suspected of one-sided fanaticism for nature.

Examples for Chemical Technical Products
Based on Crude Oil - and Biogenic Alternatives
Product range Raw Material Petrochemical Raw Material Biogenic Examples for Raw Material Example for Usage
Fiber reinforced material Carbon fiber,
GF, Polyamide
Plant fibers,
Plant Resin
Hemp fiber Shellac resin Machine Casting
Floor covering PVC Tree barks
Plant oils
Plant fibers
Plant resins
Linseed oil
Textitles Polyesters Plant fibers Linen Upholstery
Wood glazes Polyacrylates
Plant resins
Essential oils
Damar resin
Citric oil
Natural resin
Wood lacquers Acid-drying lacquer Plant wax
Plant oil
Carnauba wax
Linseed oil
Wax balm for wood
Artist's paints Azo pigments Plant Dye Woad Plant colors
Tensides Alkylbenzol-sulfonate (LAS) Plant Oil
Coconut oil
Washing detergent
Hydraulics and lubricating oil Mineral oils Plant oils Castor oil Chain saw oil
Insulating material Polystyrene Straw
Protein glue
Linseed straw
Casein glue
Insulation mat
Packages Polyethylene Polysaccharides Bipol Shampoo

It is time to adopt the soberty of his judgment to rediscover the unsurpassable quality of nature as a chemist.

Only in this way will we be able to give guarantees for the generations to come that they will have chemical technical products for their everyday needs. But the conversion of our chemical industry from a petrochemical to a biogenic basis must begin in the very near future. We only have two decades left to shape the imperative change in an economically, ecologically and socially responsible way. To use this time wisely, we should immediately start with the necessary changes.