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Publication Title | Green Chemistry Green chemistry and the biorefinery: a partnership for a sustainable future

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PERSPECTIVE | Green Chemistry Green chemistry and the biorefinery: a partnership for a sustainable future

James H. Clark,* Vitaly Budarin, Fabien E. I. Deswarte, Jeffrey J. E. Hardy,{ Fran M. Kerton,{ Andrew J. Hunt, Rafael Luque, Duncan J. Macquarrie, Krzysztof Milkowski, Aitana Rodriguez, Owain Samuel, Stewart J. Tavener, Robin J. White and Ashley J. Wilson

Received 27th March 2006, Accepted 24th July 2006

First published as an Advance Article on the web 14th August 2006 DOI: 10.1039/b604483m

Research into renewable bioresources at York and elsewhere is demonstrating that by applying green chemical technologies to the transformation of typically low value and widely available biomass feedstocks, including wastes, we can build up new environmentally compatible and sustainable chemicals and materials industries for the 21st century. Current research includes the benign extraction of valuable secondary metabolites from agricultural co-products and other low value biomass, the conversion of nature’s primary metabolites into speciality materials and into bioplatform molecules, as well as the green chemical transformations of those platform molecules. Key drivers for the adoption of biorefinery technologies will come from all stages in the chemical product lifecycle (reducing the use of non-renewable fossil resources, cleaner and safer chemical manufacturing, and legislative and consumer requirements for products), but also from the renewable energy industries (adding value to biofuels through the utilisation of the chemical value of by-products) and the food industries (realising the potential chemical value of wastes at all stages in the food product lifecycle).


While the 20th century saw the emergence and establishment of an organic chemicals manufacturing industry based on petroleum refining, the 21st century will see the development of a new organics industry based on biomass refining.1–3 In both scenarios the driver is energy. The enormous demand for petroleum as a cheap, single-use fuel gave chemical manufac- turing a large volume, low cost and continuous supply of hydrocarbons from which the petrochemical industry was built; chemical and engineering technology for cracking, separating, rearranging, polymerising and functionalising allowed us to take complex mixtures of simple chemicals and transform them into a multitude of higher value molecules with a seemingly never-ending range of applications from high volume, low cost plastics to small volume but highly expensive drugs. We are now at the beginning of an era where new, renewable sources of energy are sought with increasing vigour; biomass, renewable carbon, is guaranteed a place in the new energy portfolio for the foreseeable future. The growth in the bioenergy (e.g. biomass gasification) and biofuels (e.g. biodiesel) industries will add to the food industries in the consumption of renewable carbon.2 Food production is wasteful—from the crop residues (e.g. wheat straw) through the processing (where substantial losses occur) to sale and consumption, we throw away an obscenely high proportion of food. However, what is waste to food manufacturing can be

Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, Department of Chemistry, University of York, York, UK YO10 5DD

{ Current address: Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BG

{ Current address: Department of Chemistry, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St Johns, NLA1B 3X7, Canada.

feed to the chemicals, energy and other industries. Wheat straw contains significant quantities of valuable wax compounds (fatty alcohols, alkanes, etc) and the lignocellulosic fraction can be used to make paper or ethanol;4 rice husks from rice farming can be burned to yield the energy needed to drive the farm machinery, and the residues are rich in silica5 that has diverse application value. Used food oils can be recovered and, through chemical transformation, turned into biodiesel.6 The same biodiesel manufacturing process, encouraged by tax incentives and government targets for biofuel utilisation, produces glycerol as a co-product, which, through the right chemistry, can be turned into numerous higher value products. Food wastes can no longer be landfilled due to health concerns, so they ultimately need to be burned; alternatively they could be gasified and used to drive a gas turbine to produce electricity—combined heat and power units is an exciting possibility for the destination of low value residues and wastes. It may also be possible to gain chemical value from the destruction of food (and other biological) wastes; controlled pyrolysis can be used to produce small organic molecules that may have value in their own right, or in making polymeric materials, or as platform molecules for building up larger and more valuable chemical products.7

The refining of nature’s daily bounty will provide a treasure trove of chemical potential from pre-treatment to incineration, as well as by devoting some of the raw material to bioprocessing.

A biorefinery can be considered as an integral unit that can accept different biological feedstocks and convert them to a range of useful products including chemicals, energy and materials (Fig. 1).8,9

Renewable resources research at York is directed at chemical aspects of biomaterials and bioenergy as well as

View Article Online / Journal Homepage / Table of Contents for this issue

This journal is ß The Royal Society of Chemistry 2006

Green Chem., 2006, 8, 853–860 | 853

Published on 14 August 2006. Downloaded by Memorial University of Newfoundland on 21/11/2013 16:51:13.

Image | Green Chemistry Green chemistry and the biorefinery: a partnership for a sustainable future

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