Facing uncertainty in bio-based industries

By Ajay Shah and Mary Wicks

Plant-based products and fuels have the potential to decrease U.S. dependence on petroleum feedstocks, improving energy security, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating new industries. However, the pandemic and other uncertainties have significantly impacted the U.S. economy, from the availability of funds to the ability of businesses to survive. For bio-based industries, which often face challenges due to their use of unconventional feedstocks and processes, these further constraints can have a significant impact.

Typical challenges the bioeconomy faces are related to system logistics and conversion of biomass. Biomass feedstocks require many steps, including harvesting and transporting bulky materials, preventing decomposition during storage, and pretreating to improve conversion. Each step can have unique costs and inefficiencies that can result in increased costs for the entire system.

Plant-based materials need to be competitive on both performance and price. Conversion of biomass to chemicals that can be used in place of petroleum-based ones or to create unique products can further increase costs. Although polls of consumers indicate they are willing to pay more for sustainable products, some manufacturers have reported that this is not always the reality.

What is needed to grow the bioeconomy?

The 2020 Advanced BioSystems Workshop on Dec. 8 from 9 a.m. until noon will focus on “Growing the bioeconomy in uncertain times.” This year’s virtual, half-day program will feature a keynote speaker widely recognized as the initiator of green chemistry reporting plus opportunities for everyone to participate in facilitated breakout sessions to discuss challenges and brainstorm the technology, research, and government initiatives needed to address them.

Doris de Guzman has been covering the green industry for 20 years, and in 2007 founded the Green Chemicals Blog, which reaches over 10,000 readers each month. As a senior consultant with Tecnon OrbiChem, she also covers bio-based chemicals and renewable carbon feedstocks for the company’s monthly newsletter, BioMaterials Chemical Business Focus. Ms. de Guzman provides expert analysis on a wide range of pertinent subjects including oleochemicals, biopolymers, industrial biotechnology, biofuels, and other renewable chemical products.

All attendees will choose one of three facilitated breakout discussions that will address questions to different topics. Session 1 will focus on conversion of biomass for bioproducts and biofuels. Questions will include how to make biofuels more attractive or competitive, how producers can be more flexible and resilient, potential impacts of improved efficiencies, and more.

Session 2 will address what is needed to improve the logistics of moving biomass feedstocks from the field to biobased industries and the end products to the producers. They will discuss how to increase flexibility to allow companies to meet rapidly changing demands, especially in times of crisis. Additional questions will focus on changes needed to increase the ability of farming systems to absorb shocks, identify new opportunities quickly, and more.

The third concurrent session will focus on policy and governance. This group will discuss the policies needed to provide a better framework for both biofuel and bioproduct industry sectors as well as how the government could best focus its resources, including different types of financial support. Following the breakout sessions, all attendees will reconvene to hear a summary from each session and participate in further discussions.

The workshop is open to everyone. Registration is $25 per person. For program and registration details, including online registration, see the links at probe.osu.edu or contact Mary Wicks at wicks.14@osu.edu or 330-202-3533.

The workshop is organized by the Ohio State University’s department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and supported by the Ohio Soybean Council, which seeks to expand the development of soy-based products and technologies, improving the profitability of Ohio’s soybean farmers.

Dr. Ajay Shah is an Associate Professor and Mary H. Wicks is a Program Coordinator in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering of The Ohio State University. E-mail: shah.971@osu.edu; wicks.14@osu.edu. Phone: (330) 263-3858; (330)202-3533. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, OSU Extension, Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center, and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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