Biomass and Bioenergy Wishlist for the next UK Government: Helen Sneddon

With the UK General Election just under a week away, we asked some of our leading researchers and industry partners what their wishlist would be for the next UK Government. Co-Director of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and Director of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, University of York, Helen Sneddon focuses on the importance of investing in the future.

Invest in the future

The UK government’s biomass strategy in 2023 recognised non-energy uses of biomass as a flexible resource, with potential to contribute towards decarbonisation activities, not just as an energy source but also as material to displace fossil fuel use. However, in listing it in its key messages, it did so, after electricity, biomethane, heating, combined heat and power, transport, industry, and hydrogen.

Whilst we can get our future renewable electricity from sources such as solar, wind, tidal, or wave, our choices are more limited when it comes to where we can source our future renewable carbon atoms. Of the crude oil currently being extracted, only ~ 16% is directed towards chemical manufacture, with the rest going towards fuel and energy, however, the revenue generated by the ~16% is approximately as much as the rest of the fuel and energy combined. Therefore, if biomass is to be properly explored as an alternative to petrochemicals, we might expect chemicals to feature higher up the pecking order.

Biomass used for chemical feedstocks helps society make useful things, ideally which can be reused, recycled, or biodegrade.  It is fundamentally different in terms of environmental outcomes to using biomass to energy, where ultimately the material is still releasing CO2 (albeit CO2 which has been captured and stored (sequestered) relatively recently).

Undoubtedly there are challenges to this use of biomass.  It could be argued that with alternative energy and fuel, all remaining oil could be prioritised for chemicals. But this is far from certain – or indeed, given the finite reserves, geopolitical considerations, and temptation for “surplus” to still be burned – advisable.

Sourcing renewable carbon atoms

So, as highlighted in a recent Policy Briefing from the Royal Society, we need to be looking at sourcing renewable carbon atoms for chemicals. These approaches can involve using alternative carbon sources, which might include CO2 or waste as well as biomass, to access base chemicals, such as ethene, propene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, and xylene, which can be used as drop-in replacements in existing processes built on these building blocks.

Biomass as a more useful source of carbon atoms

Alternatively, we might exploit the fact that the chemical composition of biomass, a wide variety of small components, contains more functionality than the simple alkanes found in crude oil. For example, biomass-sourced molecules generally contain more oxygen than the building blocks derived from fossil fuels and so one can envisage avoiding the oxidation chemistry currently needed in the bulk chemical industry.  We may also look to exploit new products that might be accessed from biomass, such as alternatives to the polymers that are currently the source of many concerns relating to pollution and microplastics.

Focus investment on the future 

Research is needed to and determine how the chemical complexity of biomass might best be exploited.

We need policies that remove the economic barriers, such as the removal of subsidies to the oil and gas industry rendering the current status quo cheaper than it might otherwise be.

Financial support is also crucial, as are subsidies for emerging technologies that enable them to help them scale and compete on a more level playing field with established companies.

It is far from the case that all bio-based chemicals will be inherently more sustainable than all current fossil-fuel based ones, so there is also a need for robust sustainability assessments to avoid greenwashing or regrettable substitutions.

Biomass used for chemical feedstocks can help society make useful products.  If the focus is solely on obtaining energy from biomass, ignoring the potential value contained in this biomass itself we could be missing a great opportunity. We need action to unlock the potential of bio-based chemicals and their contribution to a sustainable future.

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