From petroleum to wood in the chemical industry: cost-efficient and more sustainable

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In Belgium, an interdisciplinary team of bio-engineers and economists  from KU Leuven has mapped out how wood could replace petroleum in the chemical industry. They not only looked at the technological requirements, but also 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.

Our 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. The team of researchers previously published on how wood can be transformed into chemicals that can be used in a plethora of 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 harmful to humans, compared to those made out of petroleum.

“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. As a result, wood could replace petroleum in the chemical industry.