Crude oil currently makes the world go round. It is the most important raw material for the global economy and is synonymous with prosperity and progress. It powers cars, planes and ships, and is the feedstock for the production of base chemicals, plastics, paints and many other products in our everyday lives.

The secret to crude oil’s success is its high carbon content. Carbon, a chemical element with the symbol C, can be used to create almost all chemical compounds, making it the most important building block for the chemical industry. No other chemical compound can be used to produce such an extensive variety of molecular architectures, including infinitely long chains, rings and 3D networks.

Carbon is therefore crucial to industrial production. And with 85-90% carbon content, crude oil has a lot to offer. “However, carbon is also present in natural raw materials,” explains Prof. Thomas Hirth, Head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) in Stuttgart.

Vegetable oils and fats comprise around 76% carbon. And lignocellulose - the main component of wood - also boasts 50% carbon content. “Industry must now learn to capitalise on nature’s carbon potential,” continues the chemist. Especially now that the era of black gold is coming to an end.

Plant-based raw materials already contain the right substances and structures for many products. Fibres, for example, can be used as a basis for textiles or as a basic component for insulation and packaging. Vegetable oils can be processed to create surfactants for detergents. Maize and potato starch can be found not only in biodegradable materials such as yoghurt pots, but also in adhesives and pharmaceutical products. Currently only around 13% of feedstock for the chemical industry is sourced from regenerative raw materials.

“This share of the sourcing mix has to rise. Today, almost all companies are looking to base more of their production processes on regenerative raw materials,” explains Uwe Welteroth, Director Biotechnology Plants at Linde Engineering Dresden GmbH.

Biotechnology

“Biotechnological processes play a crucial role in processing and converting biomass to chemical products,” continues Welteroth.

Industrial biotechnology, also known as white biotechnology, uses microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and special enzymes to efficiently break down plant raw materials, turning cellulose, starch, oil and sugar, for instance, into smaller components or new, more complex molecules. These tiny, natural chemical factories and molecular vehicles produce substances such as lactic acid, amino acids and alcohols. These platform chemicals can then be utilised by the chemical industry to produce plastics and other chemical products.

Biotechnological processes are increasingly being merged with physical, chemical and thermal processes. Ethylene, for example, is a base chemical used for a wide range of applications, including the large-scale manufacture of plastics around the world. One innovative method for producing this compound involves a number of different steps, including thermal conversion of regenerative raw materials to gas, biotechnological processes for converting this gas to liquid alcohol and subsequent physical-catalytic steps.

Talent hub

“Many processes based on renewable raw materials often get stuck in the laboratory and pilot stage and never make it to industrial development,” says Hirth.

“Many companies do not have the financial or technical means to scale-up their processes”

Dr Markus Wolperdinger

The experts at Fraunhofer want to change this. Following a Europe-wide tender, Fraunhofer commissioned Linde Engineering Dresden to design and construct the Chemical-Biotechnological Process Centre (CBP) in Leuna. The centre is designed to help small and medium-size businesses transfer biotech processes from the laboratory to industrial-scale production. Larger companies will also benefit from the facilities at the CBP.

“Many companies do not have the financial or technical means to scale-up their processes,” explains Dr Markus Wolperdinger, Head of Business Development Biotechnology Plants at Linde Engineering Dresden.

The CBP’s main aims are therefore to help businesses scale-up technologies and develop processes. “Chemical-biotechnological processes and plant modules that harness and convert regenerative raw materials can be developed and optimised at the centre. They can then be integrated directly into existing crude oil refineries as green production units,” explains Hirth.

The objective is to gradually replace fossil-based material flows with biogenic flows. According to Wolperdinger, the centre’s location gives it a great advantage. “The CBP Leuna is located in the heart of an established chemical cluster, giving it direct access to industry and a diverse range of products,” he says. It is therefore ideally placed to pioneer the transition to an integrated hub, capable of processing both fossil and regenerative raw materials.

“This is a key step towards a bioeconomy and sustainable production,” confirms Hirth. “The CBP is like a microcosm of a bioeconomy.” The centre is also part of the German Research and Science Network, giving it strong cross-regional pull. The project is coordinated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT). As the main contractor, Linde Engineering Dresden is responsible for the various process units. “To harness the full energy and material potential of plant-based biomass, we will use cascading process chains - similar to those used by a biorefinery,” explains Welteroth.

To create an optimum infrastructure comprising pilot and mini plants, Linde Engineering is thus building five process plants for the development and up-scaling of industrial biotechnology methods. “For the entire system to work efficiently and economically, the individual units must be fully interoperable so they can maximise the material and energy flows,” adds Wolperdinger. Experts from Linde Engineering Dresden are also collaborating as research partners at the CBP, investigating individual projects such as the use of industrial gases (such as hydrogen) in refineries and the development of plants to generate bioethylene from innovative biomass conversion processes.

Making the most of straw, wood & waste

Construction on the CBP Leuna officially got underway at the end of 2010. However, the first projects with major companies, small and medium-sized partners, universities and non-academic research institutions started back in 2009.

Over 20 industrial companies and 15 universities and research organisations have thus far agreed to collaborate on projects or are already actively involved. Together with his project partners, Hirth and his team started to lay the foundations for the CBP almost four years ago. “We involved all relevant players from industry, business and politics right from the word go so that we could start our research activities before the building had been constructed,” recalls Hirth.

“This is truly something special and a testament to our commitment to a bioeconomy”

Prof. Thomas Hirth

One of the key projects at the CBP involves lignocellulose, the primary component of wood. For some years now, scientists at the Fraunhofer IGB laboratories have been working on the thermal conversion of this versatile feedstock, and developing tailored decomposition and separation methods to harness all of the components in lignocellulose.

Once the CBP is finished in summer 2012, the biotech experts intend to establish a sustainable, demonstration-scale process at the centre and thus lay the foundations for future industrial-scale production of synthesis compounds and polymers from wood. They will be focusing in particular on ramping up processes that harness biogenic waste streams - raw materials that are not suitable as food sources - to industrial-scale production. With plants, technologies, laboratories, offices and storage space spread over an area in excess of 2,000 square metres, the CBP will provide the perfect all-round platform for the development of industrial biotechnology processes.

The CBP receives funding from several German ministries, including the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), and is also supported by the State of Saxony-Anhalt. “This is truly something special and a testament to our commitment to a bioeconomy,” maintains Fraunhofer expert Hirth, who, together with Linde Engineering Dresden GmbH and other partners, has accompanied the Chemical Biotechnological Process Centre project every step of the way, from financing to realisation.

Centres such as the CBP are crucial to intensify research into the kinds of renewable raw materials that have the potential to power a forward-thinking, sustainable future.