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Report for the EC evaluates prospects for sugar-based platforms for biofuels and biochemicals

A comprehensive review of 94 potential pathways to biofuels and biochemicals via the sugar platform, prepared for the European Commission (DG ENER) by a team from E4tech, RE-CORD and Wageningen UR, finds that the global market value of the sugar platform is today of the order of $65 billion, with bioethanol (from sugar and starch crops) by far the dominant product in the market.

While several newer biofuel and biochemical routes show significant growth potential, only a few are currently crossing the valley of death between research and commercialization. Of ten case studies (the technologies being at least at TRL5) considered in detail, most can deliver significant greenhouse gas (GHG) savings and identical (or improved) physical properties, but at an added cost to fossil alternatives.

High-level representation of pathways via the sugar platform. Click to enlarge.

The report includes a discussion of key research gap themes, where insufficient R&D efforts are being focused on overcoming technical barriers. These include:

  • Lignocellulosic biomass fractionation: Substitution of corrosive chemicals, reducing the inhibition of downstream fermentation, improving hydrolysis efficiency via tailored enzyme development, and introducing processes that are flexible with respect to feedstock.

  • Increasing product yields and reduced by-product formation in biological processes, reducing energy demand for product separation, and obtaining higher purity lignocellulosic sugars for use in chemical processes.

  • Developing purification processes to obtain high purity monomers, development of novel polymers, scale-up of polymer production.

  • Improved process integration along whole technology chain (feedstock to product) incorporating different disciplines, development of consolidated processing approaches, and consideration of interfaces between biological and chemical steps.

Challenges also remain with regard to reducing costs and energy use, improving yields and purities, as well as integrating processes along the whole chain.

Sugar2
Commercialization status of 25 selected sugar platform products. Click to enlarge.

The report provides an evidence base for policymakers and industry regarding the various routes, their status, value propositions, barriers and opportunities. The authors find that while the EU has competitive strengths in R&D, the US, China and Brazil have greater commercial activity due to more attractive feedstock costs and investment conditions.

The authors suggest that further policy development, in particular around biochemicals, will be required for Europe to benefit from and realize a sugar-based bioeconomy.

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