EARLIER THIS MONTH, the UN delivered a quite alarming report.
In it, the organisation stated that unprecedented changes to the world economy are needed to tackle climate change, warning that unless we phase out the burning fossil fuels by 2050, the change in climate will significantly increase the risk of flooding, drought and famine.
So what changes can be made? How can we possibly give up petroleum-based fuels and materials and maintain our current standard of living?
First, some good news – the technology to eliminate the use of fossil resources is already well-established. In terms of producing energy, more than enough renewable electricity can potentially be produced from solar, wind and tidal supplies.
This electricity can be used to heat homes, drive cars and trucks and power the manufacturing industry.
However, there is no such thing as a viable electric aeroplane, and it is not likely to be available any time soon.
Similarly, you cannot make plastics and pharmaceuticals from electricity alone.
So, while renewable electricity will be vital to eliminate carbon emissions, you also need a carbon source to produce liquid fuels for aeroplanes as well as materials to manufacture plastics and drugs.
This is where biofuels and biomaterials come into the picture. So, what are they?
To explain this, we must first look at what the fossil resources are. In addition to being the primary source of fuel for transportation, they are also the raw materials for all plastics, drugs and materials that we have come to rely on in recent times; particularly oil and gas.
The big issue with burning fossil fuels is that they have been buried beneath the ground for millions of years, so burning them results in the sudden release of large amounts CO2 into the atmosphere, causing the change in climate that has received a huge amount of attention in recent years. This is a linear process (fossil resource -> fuel -> atmosphere).
On the other hand, an alternative to problematic fossil fuels are biofuels and other biomaterials produced from biomass. Biomass is anything that grows – trees, grasses, cereal crops, seaweed, etc. – which can be processed in a biorefinery, akin to fossil resources being processed in an oil refinery.
Now, you may be thinking, does that not mean that burning biofuels also produces the terrible greenhouse gas, CO2? Yes, it does. However, the key difference between the two is that biomass takes in atmospheric CO2 while growing, so there is no net increase in atmospheric CO2 when it is burned as a fuel.
Furthermore, by producing bioplastics and other biomaterials, carbon can be removed from the atmosphere and converted back into a solid form, similar to the fossil fuels created by the exposure of decomposed plant matter to millions of years of pressure and heat.
With a gradual replacement of fossil-based products with bio-based products, twinned with effective and highly efficient recycling methods, it is possible that atmospheric CO2 will gradually decrease over time. This is a circular process (biomass -> fuel -> atmosphere -> biomass) and is therefore known as the “circular economy” or the “bioeconomy”.
Problem solved? Almost, but there is still a significant barrier – cost. Oil is a high-volume, low-value commodity, meaning competing with it is very difficult. Currently, most people are simply not willing to pay extra for the exact same product, no matter how ethical it may be, usually for genuine financial reasons.
Therefore, we have to be smart in how we attempt to implement the bioeconomy.
One option would be to synthesise chemically-identical fuels and materials to the currently-used ones from biomass (known as drop-in replacements), and try to compete in terms of costs. While this can be done from a technical point of view, it is not an ideal solution.
Firstly, the same issues with biodegradability and toxicity will be present in the bio-based version of the traditional materials. For example, bio-based PET (the hard plastic used to make drinks bottles, among other common packaging) would be just as persistent in the ocean as fossil-derived PET.
Secondly, oil is so cheap that it will be very difficult to produce biofuels and biomaterials at a competitive price.
Instead, the current bioeconomy strategy is to offset production costs by manufacturing high value, low-volume chemicals (such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics) alongside the cheap biofuels and bioplastics in the biorefinery, much like what the petroleum industry currently does.
In addition, completely new fuels and materials, which are of better quality than the ones we currently use are constantly being developed. After all, the only reason we use many of the most common fuels and materials today is because they were easy to make in the first place; they are very rarely the optimal product for their respective function.
If new products are designed that perform better than the originals, then a bio-premium would be justified. For example, plastics with improved biodegradation, recyclability, flexibility, strength and weight compared to currently used polypropylene and PET are currently the focus of much research, with some in the late development stage.
Another issue that a biorefinery must address is the “food versus fuel debate”.
It is not ethical to use food to produce fuel and materials while there is ongoing hunger in the world. However, there is a simple solution to this too. Instead of crops, only the agricultural waste is used.
For example, in the case of wheat, the edible grain would be harvested as food as normal, while only the inedible straw would be processed into fuels and materials. This is known as a second-generation biorefinery, and yes, there is more than enough waste biomass available to meet our needs. Importantly, exploitation of agricultural waste would provide added revenue stream for farmers.
Another huge benefit of the second-generation biorefinery, especially for a country like Ireland, is that to maximise efficiency and minimise transportation costs, the biorefinery should be located close to the biomass which it is refining. A biorefinery also needs manpower and expertise, so attractive jobs would be created where they are needed most: in rural areas.
For a country like Ireland that does not possess traditional natural resources to sustain a manufacturing industry, that has suffered greatly from mass emigration due to unemployment, and that is in danger of suffering at the hands of climate change as much as anyone else, the bioeconomy is an attractive, robust solution that must be considered.
Fergal Byrne is a postdoctoral research associate from Co. Kildare, currently working at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York in the UK. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The University of York.