(Written by Jesse Fahnestock (SP) based on analysis by Ileana Hernandez Mireles (TNO) and Henna Sundqvist-Andberg (VTT))
The AERTOs Bio-Based Economy project has begun working to evaluate business cases for select process–>product routes for ligno-cellulosic biorefineries. A first, rough assessment of the economics of these cases has been performed, with more detailed techno-economic analysis of the processes now under development. From a product perspective, all of these cases assume a production of C5 and C6 sugars (volumes dependent on process) and a valorization of the lignin fraction. The project’s market studies and innovation systems analysis team has already looked at some issues related to sugar markets (here and here); the following post provides a brief summary of some of the potential markets for lignin-based products.
Several of the routes involve the production of guaiacol, which is the primary feedstock in industrial vanillin production. Vanillin is a valuabe product in flavourings, fragrances, in agrochemicals and as a pharmaceutical feedstock, commanding up to $12 000/tonne. The potential to produce vanillin from lignin has been understood for decades, but the mismatch between the small market volumes and the scale of lignin side-streams has been a disincentive. The problem remains today – 20% of the total market volume (16 000 tonnes/year) is based on Lignin, but this is all from one company (Borregard).
The routes generating guaiacol can also produce phenolics. As a chemical feedstock these command a lower price of approximately $1500/tonne but the global market of around 8 million tonnes is large and expected to outgrow the economy as a whole. Derivatives such as resins are seeing similar market growth. Another higher-value alternative may also be the production of Bisguaiacol-F, a potential replacement (somewhat controversial) plastics precursor BPA.
While the integrated techno-economic analysis for these routes has not been complete, a preliminary back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that vanillin revenues are required for a robust business case. As it is unclear that the vanillin market could grow sufficiently to absorb new lignin-based production, the alternative route, focusing on the production of polyelectrolytes that could potentially compete with fossil-based polyacrylamide as a flocculant. The largest market for such flocculants is wastewater treatment; prices of flocculants are typically around $3000/tonne at production volumes of 2 MT/year. Lignin-based polyelectrolytes have not yet entered this sector and their performance needs to be verified, but the preliminary case appears attractive.
The following image summarizes the prices and volumes of these products.
(Prices per tonne for phenolic resins were based on an unweighted average of three cited price ranges and the physical volume based on this average and the cited 2012 market volume of USD 9,19 billion.)
The following table summarizes some of the market issues related to these products.