Currently some 500 billion pounds of petroleum-based plastic is produced annually using 7% of  global consumption of oil and natural gas.  Now it may be technically possible to use biofuels to substitute for up to 90% of petroleum-based plastic.  This according to  the European Bioplastics and the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE).  (See Bio-Plastics Could Replace Up to 90% of Plastics, But Not in Short Term.)

Bio-based chemicals today account for about 7% of the overall chemicals market and production is limited largely to specialty chemicals or niche products.

However, a mass substitution away from petroleum is not likely to take place quickly.  Bio-based plastics will be limited in the near to medium term for several reasons including the level of oil prices, finding economic biofuel feedstocks,  bio-chemical production costs and restricted production capacity of biomass-based polymers. Moreover, the Great Recession and tight capital markets have put several promising projects on hold.

Yet, as Al Fin Energy reports, this is not stopping the bioplastic industry from talking about how to proceed.  At a conference in Berlin in October 2010 we learned that ethanol-based polyethylene has exactly the same characteristics as PE derived from petroleum and that sugarcane is an excellent source of ethanol.

Dow Chemical and Matsui are partnering for such a project in Brazil, using sugarcane as feedstock. (Cheap Plastic Made From Sugarcane)  The facility will be the world’s largest to make polymers from plants.

The project will begin with the construction of a 240-million-liter ethanol plant, a joint venture with Mitsui, that is set to begin later this year. By the beginning of next year, Dow will finish engineering plans for facilities that will convert that ethanol into hundreds of thousands of metric tons of polyethylene, the world’s most widely used plastic.

Dow is keeping costs down by doing every part of the process, from growing the sugarcane to producing the polymers. This makes it possible, for example, to provide energy to run the plant with biomass left over from producing sugar from sugarcane.

Brazil, as we saw earlier, is using sugarcane to replace fossil fuels in both the transportation and electricity generation sectors. Now it looks as if firms are headed south of the equator to produce bio-chemicals as well.

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