Biopolymers industry hampered by production costs

Despite increasing consumer pressure for renewable materials and government legislation on the use of virgin plastics, the development of the biopolymer industry is being ‘held back’ by variations in costs and product quality, analytics consultancy IHS has found.

Biopolymers (also termed bioplastics and bio-based polymers) – such as isosorbide polycarbonate, polybutylene, succinate, and polyethylene –  are ‘materials produced from renewable sources’, such as sugar, ‘seed oil and lipid-based bio-products, cellulose derivatives, protein and biomass’. They are sometimes used as a more ‘environmentally-friendly’ alternative to polymers produced from fossil fuels, and are often biodegradable.

The most widespread bio-based polymers currently in use are natural rubber and cellulosic materials.

According to the IHS, the biopolymer industry is set to see a surge in demand, as businesses become more aware of resource scarcity, and focus more on sustainability. Indeed, the ‘IHS Chemical CEH Biodegradable Polymers Marketing Research Report’, published earlier this year, suggests that demand for biodegradable polymers in North America, Europe and Asia will increase from 269 thousand metric tons (KMT) in 2012 to nearly 525 KMT in 2017, representing an average annual growth rate of nearly 15 percent during the five-year period 2012-2017.

High production costs

However, findings from the consultancy’s most recent publication, ‘IHS Chemical Process Economics Program on Bio-Based Polymers’, found that the wide scale commercialization of many biopolymers is being hampered by the ‘high costs’ of production.

Susan L. Bell, author of the study, explained: “While bio-based polymers currently comprise less than one percent of the total global polymer market, there is significant consumer demand and that demand, combined with increasing legislation such as plastic bag bans and global warming initiatives, are driving increased market opportunity for bio-based plastics.

“At present, however, wide-scale commercialization of some of these technologies is being limited by significantly higher costs when compared to traditional, petroleum-based plastics, and in some cases, by product quality.”

One example of a bio-based ethylene being ‘substantially’ most costly than a petroleum-based ethylene is plastic company Braskem’s ‘green’ polyethylene. Bell highlighted that although this material comprises ethylene deriving from Brazilian sugar cane ethanol (and is therefore renewable), its price premium is approximately 15-20 per cent higher than that of a petroleum-based one. Bell suggested that this comes down to the fact that ethylene derived from ethane has seen a ‘dramatic’ price drop, due to the ethane feedstocks resulting from increased North American gas supplies.

Looking to the future

The report has been released to help businesses carry out a ‘comparative economic analysis of biopolymers and conventional petroleum derived polymers’.

Speaking to Resource, Bell said: “Many of the new bio-based polymers being developed are still at an early stage. For example, bio-based polybutylene succinate and bio-based polycarbonate are only being produced at small scale. Often time, we say once we scale production up to a what would be a world scale plant, the polymer cost will drop significantly, but the question is how much will it drop and will it be competitive with existing petroleum based polymer?

“The report's objectives were to look at the current status of several bio-based polymer in terms of technology and economics, [and] how much the polymer will cost using the latest technology and large-scale production level for both the monomer and the polymer.”

Looking to the future, Bell suggested that the outlook is more promising for bioplastics used in synthetic fibres, such as polyester in food and beverage containers, and for ‘engineering applications’.

For this category of polymer, the bio-based alternatives are increasingly becoming less costly than petroleum derived options.

“Based on our IHS Chemical techno-economic analysis,” Bell explained, “bio-based PBS has substantially lower net-production costs than petroleum-based PBS, so this is a situation where the bio-based alternative is a more cost-effective solution for producers.” The lower costs of PBS is linked to the ‘recent development of bio based succinic acid and bio based BDO’ which means PBS can be produced using renewable feedstock.

Indeed, IHS points to several companies that are already using bio-polymers in the production lines, such as a collaboration between Mitsubishi Chemical, BioAmber (for bio-based succinic acid feedstock) and Genomatica (for bio-based BDO feedstock), and highlights that production could increase with the completion of Braksem’s new PBS plant in Thailand that will produce 20,000 metric tonnes a year, once operational in 2014.

 Read more about IHS or its IHS Chemical Process Economics Program on Bio-Based Polymers.