Q1 What is biomass? What are biobased crops? What is 1st and 2nd generation biomass?
All organic material, either living or dead can be called biomass for as long it is not fossilized. This means that plants, animals and micro-organisms are biomass.
Biobased crops is a term often used for crops that are not grown for food, but for non-food applications. Examples are cotton, flax, hemp and miscanthus, which is a kind of tall grass, whose fibers can be used in products, and which can also be used to produce energy.
1st and 2nd generation biomass are terms that is often used to refer to the feedstock, which is the raw materials used for biofuels but is nowadays also used for other applications. 1st generation biomass means biomass that is edible and can be used for food (sugars, starch, palm oil) while 2nd generation biomass comprises inedible side streams of crops (stems stalks), side streams from food production and dedicated non-food crops grown on land unsuitable for food production
Q2 What is the advantage of biobased products compared to fossil-based products? Is the production process of biobased products more sustainable?
Many of the products we use are made from non-renewable fossil resources, such as crude oil. Biomass is renewable and when we use it as a resource to make products that can replace those made from fossil resources, we reduce CO2 emissions. Of course, when using biomass as a resource, it is still important to apply efficient production processes. This means that energy requirements and resource efficiency are major parts of the design of the production process. Also, the biomass used to manufacture products still needs to be cultivated in a sustainable way, and labels and certificates serve as proof of the sustainability of biomass cultivation.
Q3 How much biomass is needed to produce a biobased product? How much energy does it cost to produce this product?
Many different products can be produced from biomass, and they differ in the amount of biomass and energy needed to make the product. Much of the current research and innovation in the bio-economy focuses on developing production processes that are as efficient as possible in feedstock and energy use. Some of the new bioplastics (PLA for example) are very efficient in feedstock use: Corbion, a PLA producer, uses 1,6 kg of sugar to produce 1 kg of PLA.
Q4 Is there enough biomass for all biobased applications?
When using biomass, it is important to focus on applications that actually need the carbon atoms present in the biomass. These carbon atoms are used to make building materials, packaging materials and other textiles. Energy applications are less preferable since energy demand can often be fulfilled by other sources like wind or solar energy.
The demand for material applications is much smaller than the demand for energy, and it is also much smaller than the demand for food.
The amount of available biomass can be increased by using more side streams, growing biobased crops on underutilized land, and breeding better varieties. In the future, not all biobased products will be produced from biomass since other technologies are being developed to produce materials directly from CO2, for example.
Q5 Is biobased production competing with food production?
Biomass/agricultural production has always been used both for food and non-food products, but the demand for food is much larger than the demand for non-food. Production of food is always accompanied by the production of large amounts of inedible biomass streams. When these biomass streams (2nd generation) are efficiently used, then biobased production does not compete that much with food production. Besides food, people also need non-food products for shelter, for clothing and furniture among other things. However, high production costs and complexity of production processes hamper the development of biobased production from non-food biomass.
Some bioplastics are made from edible biomass, and compete for the same feedstock as food. However, often some parts of the feedstock like proteins, (which are highly valuable in food), can be separated into elements that are used in food production and sugars that are used for bioplastics, for example.
Currently, the demand for land for bioplastics compared to land demand for food is the size of a cherry tomato, versus the size of the Eiffeltower.
Q6 Where can I buy biobased products?
Biobased products like paper, cardboard and cotton we already know and use. Some of the newer bioplastics you may find in the local shop in your neighborhood as they are used as packaging materials for food. If the bioplastic used for packaging is also biodegradable you will find a seedling logo or the OK Compost logo on the packaging
There are also some lesser known biobased products which have been used for decades, such as viscose textiles and biobased nylons that are often used in making cars. Other biobased products are only in the early stages of development, what is known as the start-up or pilot phase, and may be limited in its availability and only found in some regions for now since they are aimed at specialized market segments.
Q7 What is the price of biobased products compared to fossil-based equivalents? Are biobased products more expensive?
Generally, two routes can be taken to replace fossil products with biobased products: make the same molecules (this is known as a ´drop-in´ approach) or make new dedicated products.
Other examples are materials based on starch, such as loose fill packaging material, which is normally cheaper to produce than the Styrofoam it replaces.
Other biobased materials may be more expensive but can still be attractive because they have desirable properties. For example, a biobased material like PLA is never produced from fossil feedstock, because that is too expensive. PLA has additional positive properties, such as the absence of harmful substances and its biodegradability, which gives it a competitive advantage in the market and makes price less of an issue. In general, and actually, prices of biobased products are often higher because negative impact is often not fully accounted for in the price of fossil-based products.
Q8 Why are only a few biobased products available in shops?
Many biobased products such as paper and cotton are abundantly available in shops. Some of the newer materials are only being produced in small volumes for now, so their availability in shops is limited. This is because the bioeconomy is still in its early stages of development. The new value chains are being optimized, investments must still be scaled up, facilities must still be expanded, current prices are high compared to fossil-based equivalents, and demand is comparatively low since buyers are slowly learning about these new products.
Q9 Is the quality of the biobased products good in terms of its strength and durability?
: Sometimes the quality of biobased products is not yet what the consumers expect and will need to be improved. But again, this is a symptom of the early stages of the bioeconomy development but in principle, biobased products can be as good as fossil-based equivalents. There are two ways of making biobased products, 1) by mimicking existing products made from fossil resources (a solution for the short term), and 2) by redesigning a product by looking at desired properties/functionalities and search for the best biobased option there is (a solution for the long term).
In principle we can make all chemical building blocks used for fossil-based products also from biomass and thus we can make the same products and the same functionalities. However, based on the efficiency of the production process this might not be a preferable route. More promising in some cases is the second option, but this is also more challenging as we will need to design new production facilities meaning that we will not be able to fully use the infrastructure that was built for fossil-based production and that has been optimized over decades.
Q10 What are disadvantages of biobased products?
Depending on the way they are produced some biobased products can be more water sensitive, some have inferior properties compared to the alternatives, and some are more expensive. But there is no general rule, it depends on the specific product.
Q11 What are the climate benefits of biobased products?
Biobased products are made from renewable resources. In contrast with fossil-based products, biobased products do not release any carbon into the atmosphere. The GHG savings that can be achieved with biobased products vary with the applied technological routes and when comparing it with the fossil-based original.
Q12 What is needed to scale up the bioeconomy?
Outside Europe global investments in relatively large production facilities have already taken place, often near locations where large scale biomass is available, such as the Corn Belt in USA (NatureWorks PLA), South East of Asia (Corbion, PLA), sugar cane in Brasil (Biobased PE), and wood-based products based on wood biorefinery in Canada and Scandinavia. The volumes of bioplastics are still limited compared to fossil-based plastics production. Some initiatives and investments have failed for example due to low oil prices, which makes the competition with fossil counterparts difficult. The ban on plastics which is taking place in several countries will help incentivize new large-scale investments.
Within Europe the scale of biomass availability is often small, caused by the dispersed pattern and small scales of landscapes and farming cultures in Europe. The European growth strategy is focusing on regional innovation by smart specialization (RIS3). All EU regions have specific characteristics and differing potentials to optimize local biomass valorization, by developing new value chains between biomass producers and valorization in local industries. It is important to discover the comparative advantages within regions, explore potential valorization routes and learn from pilot and demo facilities. Often small start-up companies are set up and actively supported by regional funding schemes. When partners are convinced of the potential of the biobased innovation, full investment in production facilities may follow especially in the most promising and value-adding, biobased production lines. EU regions are actively searching for the best investments and need to go through this innovation pipeline and entrepreneurial discovery process, to scale up production.
Q13 Are biobased products degradable i.e. do they have an end of life?
Biobased is not the same as biodegradable. Even though they are made from a biobased material, it can be processed in a way that the end-product does not degrade in the environment, or in an industrial composting facility. Many biobased products however are biodegradable, and they can be distinguished by the ‘’seedling’’ logo, or the ‘’OK compost’’ logo. Just as with fossil products, biobased products should not be disposed of in the environment. Different biobased products will degrade at different rates in the environment: starch based loose fill packaging materials will disappear quickly, but a biobased polyethylene will take many, many decades to completely degrade.
Q14 How are the biobased economy, bio-economy and circular economy related to each other? How can their relationships be improved?
Generally bioeconomy is defined as those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea – such as crops, forest, fish, animals, and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials and energy. The biobased economy is part of the bioeconomy and comprises the activities that focus on the production of non-food products: chemicals, materials and energy. The circular economy focuses on keeping products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible, and minimizing the generation of waste. The circular economy therefore also comprises products based on non-biological resources. Both the circular and bioeconomy avoid using additional fossil carbon to contribute to climate targets. The circular bioeconomy is defined as the intersection between these two and thus aims to apply biomass as a resource in order to avoid the use of fossil feedstock and -added to that- improve the resource efficiency of processes and increase the use of recycled materials.