How do we move to non-fossil fuel feedstocks?

14 April 2022 | Eoin Redahan

How do we move to greener feedstocks at an industrial scale without compromising profits and harming the environment? SCI Corporate Partners Unilever, BASF, and Croda tackled the issue at a Parliamentary & Scientific Committee Discussion Meeting chaired by Stephen Metcalfe, MP on 28 March.

In an ideal world, we would use plant-based chemicals to create our products. We would wave goodbye to our petrochemical reliance; the supply of green feedstocks wouldn’t be riddled with challenges; and there would be no such thing as a food vs fuel debate.

But, in case you haven’t noticed, we live in a less than ideal world. At the Parliamentary discussion meeting several experts pointed out the challenges of moving to non-fossil carbon feedstocks and outlined a suite of solutions that will help smooth the way.

Substitute materials bring substitute problems

Sometimes, you forget about the sheer scale of the challenge. Synthetic materials have been developed for decades using fossil carbon as they have been available, cheap, and reliable. However, given what we now know about the consequences of fossil fuel feedstocks, we must rebuild these supply chains using non-fossil carbon sources. As Thomas Birk, Vice President and Managing Director of BASF UK & Ireland, noted: ‘The whole world was built on petrochemical value streams and this needs to change.’

Birk noted that 10% of all the oil and gas out there is used to create the material world around us. The challenge for chemical companies is to match the high efficiency of their existing production processes with different non-carbon sources and to do so at the same scale. It is a big ask, but one that BASF and many others are tackling.

Substituting petrochemicals for other materials brings problems of its own. For example, the fatty acids found in palm oil make useful greener feedstocks, but the large-scale expansion of palm oil plantations poses problems from an environmental perspective.

‘We are looking deeply into consequential problems when we are substituting petrochemicals,’ Birk said. BASF is investing in making supply chains more sustainable, and it has also looked into alternative approaches to help create a circular economy. He also noted that BASF is heavily invested in chemcycling, a process that turns recycled plastic waste into molecular matter, enabling the reuse of chemicals.

The food vs fuel debate

Another salient issue raised during the debate is the ongoing tension between raising crops for food and growing them to provide bio-based feedstocks to create everyday items. The issue is further complicated by those seeking to create fuels from biomass. For companies focused on increasing the number of bio-based products in their processes and goods, it is a thin line to walk. Nick Challoner, Group Chief Scientific Officer at Croda International, explained that Croda adopts an approach that is land positive, people positive, and climate positive.

The company’s goal is to create the bio-based products we need while becoming climate positive by 2030, with more land saved than is used to grow its raw materials. Croda has created bio-ethylene oxide using corn at its Atlas Point facility in Delaware, US, to replace some of the surfactants used on personal care products that previously contained ethylene oxide.

Similarly, Andreea Sapunaru, Clean Future Marketing Director at Unilever noted that the company has rolled out dishwashing liquids with cleaning ingredients made from fermented sugar and developed detergents with plant-based stain removers.

She also made the important point that consumers are becoming more eco-conscious by the year and claimed that eco-active shoppers could account for more than half of shoppers by 2027.

Despite this progress, much more needs to be done to get us where we need to be. Sapunaru noted that grander progress is contingent on getting these greener feedstocks in higher volumes. After all, Unilever makes products, not chemicals. ‘We need the big chemical companies to invest because they’re the ones who can supply us at this kind of scale,’ she said.

So, what can be done?

Sapunaru believes a supportive policy environment would help. ‘We need the support of policymakers,’ she said. ‘Set a national target to use no less than 20% of non-fossil carbon in UK chemicals and plastics by 2030.’ Other approaches she advocated included support to help smoothen the transition from pilot to industrial production.

Others offered similar sentiments. Challoner called for a more coordinated Government strategy and Dr Jem Woods, Reader in Sustainable Development at Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy, made a case for something that has long been a bugbear for those in scientific fields. He said: ‘The central thing is to have a consistency in policy message through time – to set the long-term targets so that industry knows what it's optimising towards.’

Having reflected on these opinions, Viscount Stansgate posed an intriguing question: Is it time for the Government to develop a molecule strategy?

Opportunity for a technological edge?

Given the amount of research and development going into making our chemical feedstocks greener, there are certainly grounds for optimism. Challoner pointed out that we now have increasingly standardised ways of measuring in-use carbon across supply chains.

He also noted that there are some impressive early innovations taking place within industry and from start-ups, but our failure to industrialise is holding us back. And, just as there are grounds for optimism, there are also grounds for opportunity. Croda sees some of this opportunity in the biotechnology space. ‘We all recognise that biotech could be a fundamental way forward if we could get it right at an industrial scale, Challoner said, even if he noted that the true use of biotech in the chemical space is yet to be developed. ‘If we want to work in a partnership, then finding ways we can develop the biotech economy in the UK could… give the UK a really strong technological edge.’

Many different approaches will be necessary. Just as Croda is looking at biotechnology, BASF has invested in the chemical recycling of ‘co-products’ and waste, while other companies have investigated other ways to mitigate the problem, such as direct-air capture.

Several approaches will help but none are available at the scale and cost required to compete with the petrochemical route. Importantly, Challoner also highlighted the need for a combined and coordinated approach across different organisations. After all, this isn’t a problem that can be tackled alone, and looking at the process as a whole could be beneficial.

There’s no doubt that the challenge of transitioning to non-fossil fuel feedstocks is a formidable one. As Andreea Sapunaru noted, more and more customers are demanding low-carbon alternatives to everyday products, and yet the sustainable material choice is often complicated as the example of palm oil production highlights.

However, with government support, closer collaboration among corporates, and a more fertile ground for technological innovation, we could develop non-fossil carbon feedstocks at an industrial scale. Whether that happens soon enough is a story for another day.

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