Can green chemicals save the ethanol industry?
October 19, 2009
The Wall Street Journal reports that a group of biotechnology and chemical companies is proposing to use existing ethanol infrastructure to make higher-margin chemicals. Worries about global warming and government efforts to make chemicals more environmentally friendly are pushing the industry to find alternatives to the building-block materials they make mostly out of oil and natural gas. Ethanol itself, and other chemicals that can be brewed at ethanol plants, are emerging as viable options. The trend could give the nascent green-chemicals industry a big boost, and revive business for ailing ethanol producers, some of which are bankrupt and idle. Still, analysts say, the ethanol industry will gradually move into bio-chemicals because they represent an intermediate step between corn-based ethanol and more-advanced, next-generation bio-fuels. While refiners mainly produce diesel and gasoline, they are also the beginning of a long manufacturing chain that churns out myriad other products, from auto lubricants to plastics. The main difference is that bio-chemical producers will rely on living bugs that have been biologically engineered to transform plant materials into other specific substances. The ideal organism can transform sugar into a chemical in one step, while making the same product at a chemical plant usually takes several, requiring more energy and equipment. Bio-chemicals also come with marketable green credentials.