Biomass Strategy: Bio-based chemicals and materials

The UK Government has published its Biomass Strategy, outlining their view on the role biomass will play in supporting the UK’s transition to net zero and how this will be achieved.

We worked closely with teams from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and other government departments to provide scientific evidence, context and insight to inform the strategy.

The information below provides context to the Biomass Strategy along with comment from lead academics in the Supergen Bioenergy Hub.

Bio-based chemicals and materials

Many of the most important products in society today contain carbon. Medical products, pharmaceuticals, plastics, detergents, food additives and preservatives, and all manner of dyes and colourants are made from organic chemicals based on carbon. These carbon-based products are almost all made from fossil feedstocks and eventually this results in emissions in the same way that using fossil fuels does. These materials and chemical products will still need to contain carbon in the future, and therefore a move from current, fossil-based feedstocks to renewable carbon sources such as biomass is an essential requirement for a more sustainable future. The UK manufacturing sector is a significant source of both jobs and high economic value, and future sustainable growth will depend on making this transition.

We welcome the recognition within the biomass strategy of the need to consider how to replace fossil feedstocks in the chemical industry and the role that biomass might play. The biomass strategy highlights the role of biomass across this sector and its key position in future materials, new products, high-value-added manufacturing and emerging technologies. Bio-based chemicals can reduce lifecycle greenhouse emissions compared to fossil-based equivalents, and potentially come with novel properties leading to wider sustainability benefits and improved products. As with other applications of biomass, sustainability governance that ensures these benefits are delivered will be essential as this sector develops.

However, there remain challenges surrounding the production of chemicals and materials from biomass. Some of the main challenges are common to new technologies, such as a lack of cost-competitiveness with existing fossil-based chemicals and the large capital investment required to scale up these new technologies enough to meet market demand. As stated in the Biomass Strategy, much more work is needed to understand the role of biomass in the materials and chemicals manufacturing sectors. There is currently no national policy on sustainable materials and little clarity on the future for bio-based chemicals, and government needs to take action so that the UK can achieve a net-zero-compatible materials economy.

The UK is the home of significant and long-standing academic excellence in bio-based chemicals, meaning there is the potential for us to be a leader in this space, but other areas of the world are already implementing policies to drive this sector forwards and the UK is rapidly losing this competitive advantage. Our upcoming report on bio-based materials and chemicals aims to inform future policy drivers across this important manufacturing sector and provide evidence to help address some of the questions and challenges in this space.


Lead Author: Jason Hallett, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technology at Imperial College London and Lead for the Pre-treatment and Conversion Topic Group at the Supergen Bioenergy Hub Email: Tel: 020 7594 5388 (Unavailable 14-21 August)

Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow, Supergen Bioenergy Hub, Aston University


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