Biochemicals have shown the promise of transforming the chemical industry
biochemicals green transformation: The chemical industry plays a crucial role in the global economy, generating over $4.7 trillion in annual revenues, or about 5% of the global GDP. Its products are essential to various sectors, including healthcare, packaging, agriculture, textiles, automotive, construction, and many others, with 96% of manufactured goods depending on them. However, the chemical industry also has a significant carbon footprint and lags behind other industries in the transition to net-zero emissions. According to the World Resources Institute, chemicals, including petrochemicals, are responsible for 3.6% of global emissions due to energy use in production and another 2.2% from the use of fossil fuels as raw materials, particularly in plastics, or as a byproduct of chemical processes. To address climate change, it is imperative that manufacturers in multiple sectors reduce their carbon footprints and find more sustainable alternatives.
By adopting a “planet positive” circular and net-zero emissions model, the chemical industry has the potential to grow 2.5 times by 2050, enabling transitions to net-zero emissions in other sectors such as shipping and energy storage, while keeping its own greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. This transition would also create 29 million new jobs worldwide, 11 million of which would be in the chemical industry. However, unless the chemical industry shifts to a sustainable model of operation, it will be difficult for other parts of the global economy that rely on chemical products to achieve sustainability.
A company looking at the problem
For more than 10 years, UPM has been working towards building the world’s first industrial-scale biorefinery to produce renewable chemicals, demonstrating its commitment to a future beyond fossil fuels. The company is investing €750 million in a facility in Leuna, Germany that will convert sustainably sourced solid wood into biochemicals, including bio-mono ethylene glycol (UPM BioPura™) and lignin-based renewable functional fillers (UPM BioMotion™). The biorefinery is expected to produce 220,000 tonnes annually and is set to begin operation in 2024.
Utilizing its extensive knowledge of wood and forests, UPM is offering circular economy opportunities for a range of chemicals based on a lignin cellulosic sugar platform derived from forest biomass. All of the wood used to produce UPM’s renewable biochemicals is certified and sourced from regional beechwood forests, conserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Currently, 70% of forest thinnings and wood is burned, but by diverting these materials from less beneficial uses, UPM can produce its biochemical products without cutting more trees. In addition, the captured CO2 is not released back into the atmosphere, supporting global climate goals.
Wood fibers, residues, and side streams are becoming increasingly important raw materials for the future, but it is crucial that any wood products come from sustainably managed forests. UPM sources its wood and side streams from sawmill operations within a 250-km radius of the biorefinery, and these regional supply chains also help to reduce transportation emissions and reliance on raw material imports from regions experiencing humanitarian or political crises.
UPM BioPura™ will be used as a base material for various industrial products and consumer goods, such as plastic bottles, packaging materials, polyester textiles, and engine and battery coolants. It has the same chemical properties and performance as fossil-based glycols and can easily be integrated into existing manufacturing and recycling processes. UPM BioPura™ has a 70% reduced CO2 footprint compared to fossil MEG, leading to a CO2 saving of more than 65% for coolant applications where MEG makes up over 90% of the product composition. Other glycols can be used to create resins, cleaning agents, de-icing fluids, fragrances, and cosmetics. UPM BioMotion™ is a new, sustainable alternative to carbon black and precipitated silica in various rubber products, including tires, hoses, rubber flooring, and more. With a 90% reduced carbon footprint compared to fossil carbon black, UPM BioMotion™ helps to reduce CO2 emissions throughout the lifecycle of a rubber product. It also has a low density, which reduces the weight of rubber products.
Carbon-negative materials can help manufacturers meet their sustainability goals, but it is important for brands to accurately and fairly inform consumers about the benefits of biobased ingredients. Some consumers may have concerns about the potential for biobased materials, such as those made from sugar cane, to take resources away from feeding hungry people. UPM’s products, made from sustainably sourced wood, do not contribute to food conflict and do not require fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation.
The current global chemical value chain is primarily linear, with low rates of reuse and recycling and significant waste generation. For example, up to 70% of the nitrogen in fertilizers is not taken up by crops, and only 9-14% of plastic ever produced has been recycled.
“Just as we are working to decarbonize the energy sector, we need to transition to renewable carbon in the chemical and plastics industries to stop adding to the earth’s greenhouse gases,” says Martin Ledwon, Vice President of Stakeholder Relations at UPM Biochemicals. “To do this, we need to replace nearly everything that is currently made from fossil carbon, such as packaging, clothing, and household goods, with something renewable and integrated into a circular economy.”
Forests provide renewable and recyclable materials as alternatives to fossil-based materials, and they also absorb and store large amounts of carbon as they grow, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Managing forest landscapes can improve biodiversity and the use of industrial forests can benefit people and communities, improving the livelihoods of forest dwellers. No matter what feedstock is used for biochemicals, forests will play a key role in the economy’s ability to combat climate change.
Recently, UPM Biochemicals announced a partnership with Dongsung Chemical, a leading Asian provider of polymers for the shoe industry. The companies plan to develop UPM BioPura™ into renewable polyurethane for use in footwear. For manufacturers like Dongsung, UPM’s wood-based biochemicals offer the opportunity to advance their net-zero commitments and gain a competitive advantage in global markets where demand for truly sustainable products is increasing.