Could wood replace petroleum in the chemical industry?

Researchers have published a paper outlining how wood could offer a sustainable replacement to petroleum in the chemical industry.

Bioengineers and economists from The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven), based in the Dutch speaking town of Leuven, Belgium, have calculated how wood could replace petroleum in the chemical industry.

The team of researchers looked at the technological requirements while also considering whether that scenario would be financially viable. A shift from petroleum to wood would lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions, the researchers state in Science.

Plastics, cleaning agents and building materials are usually made from chemical components derived from petroleum rather than from renewable materials. Petroleum is currently cheaper to use as a raw material, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

“In the paper industry, lignin is seen as a residual product and usually burned. 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,” explains Professor Bert Sels of the Department of Microbial and Molecular Systems.

How do you extract these chemicals?

The team of researchers previously reported how wood can be transformed into chemicals useful in many products. That process has now been fully mapped out. Moreover, they calculated that it can be financially feasible to build and run a biorefinery that converts wood into chemical building blocks.

To extract chemicals from wood, it is first split into a solid paper pulp and a liquid lignin oil. The pulp can be used to produce second-generation biofuels or natural insulation, while the lignin oil, like petroleum oil, can be further processed to manufacture chemical building blocks such as phenol, propylene and components to create ink. The lignin can also be used to make alternative building blocks for plastics. Chemical compounds based on lignin are less toxic compared to those made from petroleum.

The new publication is an important milestone in the team’s long-term research. “What’s so special about this study is that we calculated the economic viability of a switch from petroleum to wood,” commented Sels.

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

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