New options for production of renewable chemicals

The biobased economy targets replacing fossil resources with renewable biological resources from land and sea to produce food, materials, chemicals and energy. The concern over climate change is often seen as the main driver for production of chemicals from renewable sources. However, there is also a need to secure sustainable food production, clean water and resources for housing, clothing and everyday life commodities for the ever-increasing human population. Renewable platform chemicals can offer a significant contribution in solving these challenges, in addition to the gained decrease in carbon footprint.

Chemicals from renewable sources

Production of renewable chemicals and their different end-applications have accelerated during recent years. MacKinsey & Co estimates that the world sales of renewable chemicals will increase from € 205 billion in 2012 (9% of total chemical sales) to € 344 billion (11% of total chemical sales) by 2020 with a GAGR of 8%.

This development can be attributed to the following challenges and drivers, to name a few:

  • In order to battle against climate change, fossil-based fuels, chemicals and materials need to be replaced.
  • In the long run fossil resources will be depleted.
  • The bioeconomy is an integral part of the circular economy, guiding the future use of raw materials.
  • International brand owners seek sustainable chemicals in applications such as packing materials, solvents, inks, fibres, resins and paints.
  • There is an effort to replace toxic and harmful chemicals in applications related to food or human contact.

VTT broadening the options to produce commodities and food

VTT has developed different technologies for the production of renewable chemicals from biomass, in particular from side- and waste streams. Biotechnology, chemistry and thermochemistry offer viable and attractive options for the production.

In addition, VTT has developed technologies to produce bio-based chemicals and materials directly from one-carbon resources such as CO2 and biogas methane, paving the way towards the C1 economy, broadening the options to produce commodities and food in the future.

As the maturity of the developed technologies increases the different production value chains gain increased attractiveness. The aldaric acid platform where pectin from sugar beet pulp or citrus fruit peels, side/waste products, exemplifies the combination of biotechnology and chemistry to achieve production of bio-based monomers for bio-plastics. C5 sugars from biomass are an underutilized bioresource as of today, and need attention in order to gain feasibility in biorefineries. The economics of fast pyrolysis has been improved by developing a two-stage process for production of higher-value chemicals in addition to bioenergy. Gasification, Fischer-Tropsch and aromatization technologies have been used to produce α-olefins and BTX (benzene, toluene and xylene) from forest residues.

Some of these developments have already been practised on a larger scale during the VTT Bioeconomy spearhead programme, however, piloting is seen as a crucial next step to demonstrate their feasibility.

Bioproducts from C02 and biogas

Importantly, side- and waste streams of biomass are not the only options as raw materials for the produc- tion of future chemicals. VTT is developing several technologies to utilize CO2 for this purpose. These include, e.g., production of methane and methanol from bio-based hydrogen and CO2, and polyols and polyurethanes from CO2. Additionally, as exemplified below, biological systems can offer ways to produce bioplastics from CO2 and biogas.

Vision 2030

Future steps target commercialization of the already developed production platforms, and towards introduction of new renewable chemicals to be produced using renewable resources. VTT shares the vision for the future (> 2030) foreseeing that a major part of chemicals is produced from renewable resources and that a significant part of them is produced partly or completely from CO2.

Further information: Arto Forsberg,, +358 505414767