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Biomass as a Chemical Feedstock

Reproduced Content

This material taken from J. H. ClarkGreen and Sustainable Chemistry: An Introduction, in Green and Sustainable Medicinal Chemistry: Methods, Tools and Strategies for the 21st Century Pharmaceutical Industry, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2016, ch. 1, pp. 1-11.

It is copyright to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and is reproduced here with their express permission. If you wish to reproduce it elsewhere you must obtain similar permission from the RSC.

Large volume, low value bio-resources, collectively described as biomass, that are able to be replenished on a reasonably short time-scale, can be used as a feedstock for making chemicals, materials and fuels. 

Biomass includes:

  • Forestry residues;
  • Short rotation trees;
  • Agricultural residues including straws;
  • Food processing wastes including shells, stones, peels;
  • Grasses and other land grown biomass;
  • Marine residues; 
  • Macroalgae (seaweed) and microalgae;
  • Other food wastes.

The use of waste biomass is advantageous as it avoids competition for agricultural land, which might be used for food production, while simultaneously adding value to waste streams that would potentially otherwise go to landfill.  As well as functional molecules that can be extracted from biomass, it is also possible to biochemically and/or thermochemically process the bulk components of biomass to give a range of additional useful functional molecules or ’platform molecules’, such as succinic acid, lactic acid and levoglucosenone.

The Biorefinery and Platform Molecules

In this video, Dr Tom Farmer at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, University of York sets out how biomass can be used to construct an analogous process to the current oil-refinery based chemical industry via a ‘biorefinery’ concept. He focusses on the development of a new set of molecules derived from biomass, ‘platform molecules’, that can be used as building blocks for a bio-refinery based chemical industry and the associated processing technologies employed in their production.

Platform molecules were defined in a report produced by people working for the US Department of Energy. In this report, 12 building block chemicals were identified, which can be made from sugars either by fermentation or synthetically.  These chemicals can subsequently be converted to a number of high-value bio-based chemicals or materials.