Low-carbon feedstocks: what they could mean for the UK

Posted on 16/03/2017

By Dr Peter Clark, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Chemistry

As part of our transition towards a low-carbon bioeconomy, we must develop – and deploy at scale – a range of chemical and bio-based processes that can utilise low-carbon feedstocks in a sustainable way to meet the demand for chemicals and fuels now and into the future.

Why should we care about the bioeconomy? Well, for a start, the growth potential for a bioeconomy in the UK is huge. The UK Chemistry Growth Partnership estimates that utilising biomass or waste as a material could bring potential long-term benefits of £8 billion over the period to 2030 and represents a key innovation opportunity. It also highlights the value of adopting smart industrial biotechnology manufacturing processes in achieving the projected growth ambitions, with estimated economic potential of up to £12 billion per year by 2025.

This area is also an important part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy. The deployment of low-carbon chemicals and fuels will need to be central to the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan and in meeting its decarbonisation goals – both key parts of the pillar of delivering affordable energy and clean growth as outlined in the Industrial Strategy Green Paper.

The deployment of plants that turn low-carbon feedstocks into low-carbon chemicals and fuels will likely happen in regions of the UK that have the existing feedstock and/or manufacturing skills and capability. So this area of innovation also aligns with the other pillars of the Industrial Strategy: investing in science and innovation; driving growth across the whole country; and developing skills relevant to the future.

Nonetheless, there remain several obstacles to the widespread introduction of low-carbon feedstocks – and some critical questions to consider:

Feedstock – Which feedstocks should we be looking to exploit in the UK (such as biomass, carbon-containing wastes, micro and macro algae, and waste gases from industrial processes, like CO2)? Is it economical to source these feedstocks from the UK or overseas? How can these feedstocks be economically collected/ stored?

Process technology – Which process technologies are going to be most commercially attractive and what is the export potential of these technologies? Can we develop efficient bio routes at scale, or will we need a mix of chemical and thermo-chemical processes?

Markets: Where is the market pull and what part of the market can we hope to tap into in the UK? Will we be able to support the aviation sector’s needs for sustainable aviation fuel? Is there sufficient pull from the auto sector, for example, to develop new low-carbon polymers and other lightweight materials? What about the need to develop new sustainable personal care products?

To be successful in this area, you need to know the answer to these questions. But it is difficult.

Fortunately, we are lucky in the UK to have some of the best academic expertise in the world in chemistry, biology and engineering. We also have the alliance of open access biorefining centres, BioPilots UK, which provides expertise, capability and access to capital equipment to help with scale-up. Add to that the number of leading SMEs that are already at, or close to, demonstration or commercial scale, as well as a strong UK-based chemicals sector with experience at developing plants at-scale. We just need to bring all of these groups together.

That’s why KTN is very excited to be organising an ambitious event on 25th April to do just that – to bring together market leaders (in fuels, chemicals and downstream); technology developers and regional activity in the UK to showcase current activities in this area and explore the challenges and opportunities. This event will have a strong focus on networking and building new cross-sector, inter-disciplinary collaborations. Spaces are limited, so if you are interested in joining us, please register here.