is already an end use for it and vice versa. His recommendation was that the community focus on developing a front-end to back-end solution that would demonstrate the viability of taking biomass and making an economically viable product. Once that happens, he said, then parties might jump in who are interested in developing the supply side or the processing supply. The challenge is figuring out how to evolve that system. Carter added that small companies that she has talked with are looking primarily at making high-value chemicals as a way of getting into the larger biodiesel business eventually.
In a cautionary note, Bryan said that the high cost of separation and purification technologies presents a challenge for the integrated biorefinery idea. Each product needs its own separation, purification, storage, and distribution infrastructure, he explained, and so every product being made needs to pay off at least that part of the process, which in his experience, he said, is often the most costly part of a continuously operating refinery operation. This approach may be more feasible with batch processing.
Helena Chum added to this thread by describing how the Brazilian ethanol industry is evolving. It started largely by converting sugar cane to sugar, using ethanol to maximize profits and eventually to produce electricity. Over the past three years, however, Brazil had shifted its output and is now using 10 percent of its sugar production to make higher value products such as polyethylene and other chemicals. There is a major emphasis in Brazil now to develop the biorefinery concept. The point is that by building a biomass-to-fuels infrastructure, biomass is now a commodity with potential as a feedstock for chemicals and other applications. She added that RFS2 is creating the same situation in the United States. The point that she wanted to make, she said, was that chemists need to think more about the whole system of agriculture and forestry, energy and other products, and the biomass landscape as a whole.
Singh noted that while there are some integrated refineries in the petrochemical industry, these are a number of companies that focus on specialty chemicals. These companies are not vertically integrated, but are instead capitalizing on one aspect of the value chain, something that she thinks could take place in the biomass world with the development of commodity sugars that would be analogous to commodity oil. She added that there are 10 BIO member companies that are working on producing cheap, sustainable supplies of feedstock sugars.
Robert Greene, from DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences, asked what a more ideal biomass would look like, and Hitz responded that in his opinion, the biggest improvements today would be on the transportation side, that is, making bigger bales of material rather than in increasing the sugar content of the biomass by a few percent. From an economics perspective, increasing the volume of material that could be hauled on a truck would be the place to have the biggest impact. However, he added that it is still important to continue studying how to increase sugar content and change the structure of plant carbohydrates and lignin to make them more easily converted into sugars. But those efforts will take time to yield advances. Jeff Steiner added that the key thing that has to happen is that people working in the process side need to be talking more to the people working on the supply side to make sure everyone’s needs and interests are aligned. Hitz agreed and cited an illustrative example. Grasses may become a good feedstock, but it would be a better one if it stood erect in the field until it was totally dry. Those kinds of mundane features need to be communicated.
Throughout the workshop, speakers made general observations about the issues associated with large-scale biomass utilization and the role of the chemical sciences in addressing these issues. These observations are gathered here to capture the broad themes emerging from the workshop. These themes should not be seen as consensus conclusions of the workshop and are associated with the speaker who made that observation.