Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Switch to a Bio-based Economy

"(Biomass)Waste constitutes an enormous potential resource: hundreds of megatonnes across the world. Therefore a bio-based economy must be established on a corresponding scale. The starting point has to be large-volume chemicals- e.g., lubricants, surfactants, monomers for plastics and fibers, and industrial solvents - because they have the potential to make a substantial impact. Merely targeting fine chemicals, although economically attractive and important, would have negligible impact on sustainability of chemical production because the demand for such chemicals is small." (emphasis added)
Source: Valorization of Biomass: Deriving More Value from Waste C. O.Tuck, et al., Science 337 p. 695 2012 ($)

As you might suspect, I disagree with this little snippet of the article. (The rest of the article was very well written, but then, it did focus on the actual chemical reactions and other details, rather than making broad statements about engineering and economics.) As much as there is the rational desire outlined above for establishing a bio-based economy, there is no way that large volume chemicals will be the starting point. Simply put, the risk is too great.

Businesses succeed on the basis of two factors in the same way that gamblers, casinos and investors do - by making money and minimizing risks. In all situations, the higher the risk of the investment, the higher the potential payoff needs to be. A very large, if not the largest risk for anyone investing in a non-petroleum alternative is the price of petroleum itself, and as we all know too well, it is subject to big swings both up and down. The upswings are great for making the alternatives look good, but the downswings can be brutal. This then means that products with higher profit margins (i.e, fine chemicals) will be invested in first. Only when companies are truly convinced that downswings in petroleum are not going to occur will investments be made in lower margin items. This is especially true in commodity chemical production were large investments occur (and are recovered) over a number of years. Considering how fracking has made a huge impact on petroleum prices and markets both here and in Europe, downswings in prices are certainly not out of the picture.

I've always thought that if the government were serious [*] about developing non-petroleum alternatives, it would establish a base price for petroleum - say $3.00 a gallon for gasoline (and equivalent prices for other hydrocarbons). If the market price were to ever drop below that, the government would tax it until it met that base price. That would then allow the investment community to minimize their financials exposure to price drops and would increase long-term investments. But that will never happen. And so the investment schemes will follow what I've outline: higher margin, smaller volume investments will be made first, despite their minimal impact on establishing a bio-based economy.

[*] They're not. Jon Stewart has a great analysis of this if you think otherwise.

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