The chemical industry has spent billions to improve its toxic image. More recently, and most publicly, it is also making efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

At the core of this sea-change has been the advance of the biochemical sector, where the plan to use synthetic biology and fermentation processes with natural enzymes has been a key route to cutting down on fossil fuel usage.

So, why then is the chemical industry still so tied to oil and gas feedstocks? Even when it became geopolitically vital for Europe’s chemical producers to stop using Russian oil, the best alternative was still deemed to be imports of American and Norwegian LNG.

After years of research and billions invested in biochemical facilities, why does the pledge towards green chemistry feel like a broken promise?

The main reason is that the plan to expand chemical industry production into using more natural raw materials was largely based on economics. When the economics changed, so did the dream.

In the early years of the 21st century, the value of a barrel of crude oil was reaching record high prices. At the same time, the wars in Iraq and political strife with Iran and Venezuela were inhibiting supply chains and providing uncertainty over feedstock access. How could investors support the construction of a chemical facility without knowing if the raw materials would be available when sourced from geopolitical hotspots from foreign continents.

The solution was clear – an innovative move to biochemical production which could manufacture chemical products from biological waste, such as used vegetable oil or corn stalks.

“People were talking about peak oil and were convinced that the price of oil was never going to go back down,” explains Joel Cherry, Amyris’s president of R&D from 2008 to 2019. The economics were all going to play out in our favor.”

The result was a surge of investment into green chemistry, with companies like LS9, Solazyme, and Amyris promising plastics, fuels, and industrial chemicals made from fermented sugars.

The problem, according to some industry insiders, was that greed took over. Instead of focusing their research and development on fermenting basic chemical products, they dreamt of conquering the much more valuable transportation fuels market.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of material science, the leap from corn field waste to fuelling a family car was too great to make in one generation.

“They were struggling to close a massive gap between investor expectations and biological, physical reality,” says Tim Gardner, Amyris’s former vice president of R&D programs. “That sustainable business model is never grand enough for all the money those investors have put in.”

It is a point supported by Amyris’s cofounder Jack Newman, who remembers the researchers being pushed by the investors to take a chance on finding a way to make affordable biofuels.

“The upside, should you win at fuels, is so great that you’re willing to take a high degree of risk,” he explains.

When the financial markets crashed in 2008, the Western economy was plunged into recession, driving down consumer demand and with it, the price of oil. At a similar time, US shale gas resources began to flow into the chemical sector. Overnight, the key economic reason to shift the chemical industry away from fossil fuels was removed.

This led to a collapse in the biochemical market, as the economic rewards of using oil and gas outweighed the environmental benefits of going green and sustainable.

As the chemical industry journal CE&Nnotes, “Biomanufacturing start-ups struggled to compete with petrochemical giants. Some firms survived by pivoting to high-value molecules for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, or food, but many failed. Today, biobased plastics account for less than 1% of global production of plastic, according to the trade group European Bioplastics.”

This is an astonishing statistic when the world is so full of plastic waste and when the production of basic chemicals results in almost 1 billion mt of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

At this point, however, the biochemical companies still have the argument of cleaner, greener chemical production.

It still remains an industrial sector based on recycling waste to create valuable chemicals, and with improved technology and feedstocks, green chemistry should be providing the sustainable chemicals the market needs. However, as many industry leaders recognise, for the chemical sector to move completely away from fossil fuels requires law changes, such as carbon taxes or the inclusion of environmental costs and greenhouse gas emissions in the price of oil-derived goods.

“There is long-term potential for us to have our chemicals produced through fermentation,” says Kristin Marshall, a chemical industry analyst at Lux Research. “But until those incentives are there to help make the economics make sense, I don’t think it’s going to be possible.”

According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the fossil fuel industry receives $7 trillion in subsidies annually, the majority of which come from government spending on mitigating the negative effects of oil and gas-based feedstocks. If conventional chemical product prices had to factor in the cost of wildfires, heat-related deaths, flooding, and other extreme weather damage, then green chemistry would have a better chance.

“The only way that it’s really going to go big is if there’s a price on carbon,” says Christophe Schilling, the CEO at Genomatica – a major producer of biochemicals. “We’re kind of a ways away from that.”

So, what does the future hold for the biochemical industry?

Chemical industry analysts note that there is a slow but steady rebirth of biomanufacturing facilities for industrial chemicals, aided by renewed interest from investors.

Genomatica, for example, has made a number of collaborations with household names such as Unilever, Kao, and L’Oreal to use green chemical processes in the manufacture of everyday chemical products. This includes the construction of a 63,000 L fermentation facility which makes raw materials for personal care and cleaning products. Consumer goods which typically use palm oil as a feedstock. This is in addition to cooperating with Aquafil in Slovenia to manufacture nylon precursors via fermentation.

Additionally, BASF recently announced advances in using renewable feedstock from green waste and residual biomass for the packaging sector. While in America, a joint venture between Cargill and Helm, is to construct a biochemical facility in Iowa to annually produce 66,000 tonnes of 1,4-butanediol (BDO), a chemical used to make polymers when it opens in 2025.

Alongside this news of biochemical capacity growth, the political and public will to shift away from fossil fuels and to reach NetZero targets is also growing.

Biochemical processes have advanced, as are the range of natural enzymes being used for chemical production.

“The room for optimization is really vast,” notes Scott Franklin, cofounder and chief scientific officer of the biomanufacturing firm Checkerspot.

The problem is perhaps that the chemical industry has been built over centuries of using fossil fuel feedstocks – firstly coal, and then oil and gas. It is a habit that is hard to break, but one which biochemical industry leaders insist will be broken as more and more fermentation plants are constructed and the benefits begin to add up over time.

“It is the steady, incremental progress that wins,” says Franklin. “It’s a marathon.”

He’s right, but for the sake of restricting climate change, the planet could really use a sprint finish.

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