When we think of petroleum products, we tend to think mainly of gasoline and diesel for transportation, home heating, or electricity production. We often don’t realize that an astonishing array of other products, including plastics and flavorings, also come from the oil that we extract from deep under the surface of the earth. Meanwhile, the economic and environmental cost of extracting oil is becoming less and less sustainable.
What if we had an Alternate Source?
Since 2016, RTI’s biofuels experts have been working with the U.S. Department of Energy on new ways to produce these important chemicals from biomass instead of petroleum. Starting with any type of woody plant material, including material that would otherwise go to waste, we are able to produce a variety of oxygenated chemicals, including methoxyphenols. Sources of woody plant material include residues from forest (e.g., bark and thinning) and agricultural (e.g., corn stover and wheat straw) activities. These chemicals can be used as flavorings, fragrances, essential oils, pharmaceuticals, detergents, flame retardants, and polymers.
Nature has what we need,” said Ofei Mante, an RTI engineer and the principal investigator of MegaBIO. “We just need to find a way to develop bio-products sustainably and economically.”
Our MegaBIO project can improve the economic viability of developing biorefineries by co-producing fuels and higher profit margin chemicals. Currently, in petroleum refineries, about 75 percent of each barrel of oil becomes fuel, while 16 percent is used for petrochemicals. Yet these two product streams create the same total value in the supply chain. This exemplifies that co-production of bioproducts, such as high-value chemicals with biofuels, could potentially lead to economically viable biomass-to-liquid fuel technologies and afford a higher return on investment for the private sector. In fact, our economic analysis shows that producing methoxyphenols along with biofuels could reduce the selling price of biofuels by at least 30 percent.