Research team maps out transition from petroleum to wood in chemical production

A team of bioengineers and economics from KU Leuven in Belgium has mapped out how wood could replace petroleum in the chemical industry.

According to the researchers, who considered both technological requirements and financial viability, the transition from petroleum to biofuel (in the form of wood) would lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Currently, plastics, cleaning agents and building materials are usually made from chemical components derived from petroleum instead of renewable materials. The researchers have now fully mapped out the process by which wood can be transformed into chemicals that can be used in a range of products.

Moreover, although petroleum is currently cheaper to use as a raw material, the team have calculated that it is financially viable to build and operate a biorefinery that converts wood into chemical building blocks.

To extract chemicals from wood, it is first divided into a solid paper pulp and a liquid lignin oil. The pulp can be used to produce second generation biofuels, while the lignin oil can be further processed to manufacture chemical building blocks.

"In the paper industry, lignin is seen as a residual product and usually burned,” explained Professor Bert Sels of the Department of Microbial and Molecular Systems. “That's a pity, since just like petroleum, it can have many high quality uses if it can be properly separated from wood and the right chemical building blocks are extracted."

The new study, which has been published in the journal Science, is an important milestone in the team's research. "What's so special about this study is that we calculated the economic viability of a switch from petroleum to wood," Sels continued.

To create a realistic scenario, the researchers teamed up with a Belgian-Japanese ink company, as certain compounds from lignin can be used to produce ink. The calculations indicate that a chemical plant that uses wood as a raw material can be profitable after a few years.

Due to the shrinking paper industry, there is currently a surplus of wood in Europe. The team is currently collaborating with waste processors and landscape managers to use prunings and other waste wood for their research.

The environmental impact of using wood is also reduced compared to petroleum, as chemical compounds made from wood emit fewer CO2 emissions. Products made from wood derivatives are also able to store CO2, in the same way trees can.

The team will now scale up the production process, with the first test phase already underway. The ultimate goal is to create a wood biorefinery in Belgium. Meanwhile, the researchers are in conversation with various business partners who can process the cellulose pulp and lignin oil in a variety of products.

Bert Lagrain, sustainable chemistry innovation manager, added: "The chemical sector emits a lot of CO2 globally. A serious change is needed to achieve a carbon neutral chemistry. By scaling up our research project, we hope to get the industry on board."