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Biomass-Fed Chemical Process Projects, 2017

By Bernard Cooker.

This is a review of the biomass-fed chemical process projects producing renewable chemical products which were published in Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP) and Chemical and Engineering News (CEN) from 1/1/17 to 12/18/17. It includes activity in biochemicals, biopolymers and other renewable products.

It is based on a spreadsheet database of the information from CEP and CEN, maintained since 2013. All projects using biomass to manufacture a product and all projects fed an intermediate produced from biomass are included in the database. All projects are included, regardless of scale, from laboratory (< 1 liter), through pilot (1 liter to <500 gallons), to commercial (>500 gallons). The database contains the following information on each project: the published data source, the raw material(s), the product(s), the estimated scale, its production capacity, the entities undertaking the project, the lead entity, its location, any financial data and brief notes on the technology. Unknown attributes are clearly denoted NA.

The database now contains 622 projects and for this article, all projects from 1/1/17 to 12/18/17 were reviewed. Within this subset, 112 projects convert biomass to named products and 48 convert a biomass-derived intermediate to a named product. This article surveys the distributions of projects in the first group only, relative to: raw material, product, scale of operation and location. It is limited by the restrictions on the information in the original articles: some source articles, perhaps through confidentiality, refer to “biomass” as the raw material and others refer to “chemicals” or “biochemicals” as the products.

Raw Material Distribution

Fig. 1. 2017, Biomass-Fed Process Projects: Raw Materials by Percentage of Projects

Fig. 1 shows the groups of biomass raw materials as percentages of the 112 total projects. Five categories dominate the distribution: “biomass” (31%), wood (13%), “lignocellulosic biomass” (12%), algae (8%) and sewage (7%), totaling 71% of the entire set of projects. Secondary biomass sources, each with a small number of projects, include agricultural waste, plants, municipal solid waste, “waste” and food waste, oils, corn and corn stover, each accounting for 2 to 5% of the total projects. See Fig. 1. The remaining eight raw material categories are each represented by one project and they are as follows: soy, mealworms, pulp and papermaking waste, sugarcane, wheat straw, microbrewery wastewater, sugarcane bagasse and waste seafood. These account for 7% of the total projects. See Fig. 1. Nineteen distinct biomass raw material sources are named in the publications surveyed for 2017, constituting significant variety over a wide range.

Product Distribution

Fig. 2. 2017, Biomass-Fed Process Projects: Products by Percentage of Projects

Fig. 2 shows the distribution of products from the 112 biomass-fed projects. The database contains 41 different named products from the articles in the time period 1/1/17 to 12/18/17. The products have therefore been grouped in the categories shown in Fig. 2, for greater clarity. The six leading categories of products are polymers (12%), sugars (8%), fuels (7.5%), succinic acid (7.5%), ethanol (7.5%) and cellulose derivatives (5%). They account for the products from 48% of all the projects reviewed here. The following product categories in Fig. 2 each have a small plurality of the projects, each with a 2.5 to 4.5% share of the total: BTX and phenol, food products, dicarboxylic acids (not succinic acid), fatty acids, oils, diols, protein, carboxylic acids and lignin derivatives. The “Other” category in Fig. 2 accounts for the remaining cases, each represented by one project. These products include ethylene, phosphorus, creosote, “furanic chemicals”, liquid fertilizer, carbon black and carbon fiber.

Note that sugars and ethanol, which were relatively significant products in the biomass-fed processing arena 5 to 10 years ago, in terms of projects, are moderately important players in Fig. 2, relative to the other prominent categories. These are polymers, fuels, succinic acid and cellulose derivatives. It is encouraging from the viewpoint of potential for product added value and commercial process profitability that polymers (12%), succinic acid (7.5%), cellulose derivatives (5%), BTX and phenol (4.5%), food products (4.5%), other dicarboxylic acids (3.6%), fatty acids, diols, protein, carboxylic acids and lignin derivatives are all products in this data set. They have potentially higher added value than sugars, ethanol, fuels and biogas and they may be more profitable products.

Project Scale

Fig. 3. 2017, Biomass-Fed Process Projects: Scale by Percentage of Projects

Fig. 3 presents the project scale data for the 112 biomass-fed projects, sorted into laboratory (16 projects, 14%), pilot (23 projects, 21%) and commercial (73 projects, 65%). Historically in the chemical process industries, the number of projects in a given technical area declines from laboratory to pilot to commercial scale, as lack of technical feasibility and process economic analysis take their toll. The trend in Fig. 3 is the reverse of this; it might be explained by one or more of the following factors affecting the choice of the reported data in the original articles:

  1. Commercial scale projects, as major components of business growth and technical development, may receive much more dissemination of information and consequent publicity than smaller scale projects.
  2. Laboratory and pilot scale projects may be kept secret due to active innovation and patent application.
  3. Some commercial scale projects in the source articles are announcements of an intention to develop the technology to the commercial scale. This does not guarantee actual project execution.
  4. Biomass-fed chemical process technology is maturing and the focus of financial investment and corporate enterprise has shifted to larger scales. The pressure to recover invested capital has not abated.

Refs. 1 to 3 found and discussed a less severe form of this reversal of the expected trend: the pilot plant scale had the lowest incidence, with commercial scale activity equaling or exceeding the laboratory scale. Ref. 2 reviewed biomass-fed chemical process projects in CEP and CEN for Q4, 2013 to Q2, 2015 and reference 3 reviewed them for 2016. The forces driving the dominance of commercial scale project reports in this article are probably common with those in refs. 1 to 3. The most recent period, calendar 2017, is just more extreme.

Project Location by Country

Fig. 4. 2017, Biomass-Fed Process Projects: Project Location by Percentage of Projects

The geographical distribution of the 112 biomass-fed projects is in Fig. 4. The U.S. dominates, with 34% of the total projects; Canada (8.5%), The Netherlands (7%) and Sweden (6.5%) are next, the first four countries in the distribution accounting for 56% of the total projects in 2017. Italy, China, Australia, Thailand, France, Finland and Germany, each with a 2.5 to 4% share of the total, have small pluralities of projects. Fig. 4 also shows that there are 13 projects, under “Others”, in countries with only one or two projects each. They account for 12% of the total projects. The project location could not be determined from the original article in 11% of the cases. See Fig. 4.

The data in Fig. 4 show biomass-fed chemical process projects in 21 countries, on all continents, particularly in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia. The U.S. dominance of the project geographical distribution is probably due to the following factors:

  1. The availability of significant private venture capital, in conjunction with partnering finance for joint ventures from established chemical producers, and financial grants from Federal and State governments. The latter have promoted start-ups and small companies in the biotechnology area.
  2. The world class university research in biochemistry and biotechnology in the U.S.
  3. The availability of commercial scale quantities of biomass raw materials, including lignocellulosic biomass, forest products industry biomass, corn, agricultural waste, sewage and municipal solid waste. See Fig. 1 and its discussion of raw materials above. The U.S. has an established, cost-effective transportation infrastructure to gather and ship these raw materials to the biotechnology plants.

See references 1 to 3, where the dominance of the U.S. in previous similar reviews of biomass-based processes was also found.


This article has shown how the database of 622 project entries on biomass-based chemical processes can be used to review major features of the most recent entries on biomass-fed process projects, in this instance for 2017. Much more information can be extracted by searching the database, for example, for specific raw materials and products, specific company names, financial data and for technologies. The biomass-based chemical process industry is now very broadly based in its raw materials, nineteen different named biomass sources having been found in the 2017 data. This survey found 41 different named products from the 112 biomass-fed projects. The ranges of raw materials and products are broad. This bodes well for the industry in that many raw materials are being exploited, promoting potential flexibility of supply, and the wide product spectrum represents corresponding potential opportunities for added value, sales and profit. In 2017 there were 73 articles in CEP and CEN on commercial scale biomass conversion to specific products.

The distribution of recent biomass-derived products indicates strong interest in chemical conversion beyond sugars, ethanol, biogas and fuels, towards higher value added and more profitable products. These include polymers and more valuable intermediates, such as dicarboxylic acids, for use as monomers in polymer synthesis. Regarding biomass-fed processes in 2017, the U.S. hosted 34% of the projects, the largest player by far. Other countries are individually minor players by comparison but in 2017 there were biomass-fed chemical process projects in 21 countries. Further details of the spreadsheet database structure and contents are available from the author on request.

About the Author: Bernard Cooker is a member of Lee Enterprises Consulting, the world’s premier bioeconomy consulting group, with more than 100 consultants and experts worldwide who collaborate on interdisciplinary projects, including the types discussed in this article.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily express the views of Lee Enterprises Consulting.


  1. “Recent Biomass-Fed Chemical Process Projects: A Review”, B. Cooker, Poster at AIChE/SBE Workshop, “Challenges and Opportunities in Commercializing Industrial Biotechnology”, San Diego, CA, 28 – 29 September, (2015)
  2. “Biomass Processing by the Numbers”, B. Cooker, Chemical Engineering Progress, June, (2016), p. 31
  3. “Biomass-Fed Chemical Process Projects, 2016”, B. Cooker, Biofuels Digest, 7 December, (2016)