There’s a lot of PR about potential use of biofuels as chemical feedstocks. In fact at the last major plastics show, K 2007, there were banners flying in two halls announcing big projects in Brazil and Italy. But one of the companies making an announcement, Dow Chemical, says biofeedstocks have a bleak future.
In an outstanding plenary speech at the Annual Technical Conference of the Society (Antec) of Plastic Engineers, Dr. William F. Banholzer, the chief technology officer at Dow, threw a huge wet blanket on the whole idea of biofuel feedstocks. “The utilization of biofuels as a primary feedstock for production of commodity chemicals will most likely be constrained by a shortage of cropland, limited capital, and the availability of lower-cost alternatives,” Banholzer told Antec. “Absent unforeseen technological innovations or significant government mandates, this situation is unlikely to change on a wholesale basis in coming decades.”
Banholzer made his case going through each point in meticulous, clear detail. For example, the cost of natural gas in the Mideast is about $2 per gigajoule (GJ), an SI unit of energy equal to 109 joules. The cost to produce ethanol (an alternative feedstock to natural gas) is about $19/GJ. Production of plastics has been migrating from the United States to the Mideast over the past 20 years. That process is accelerating, and makes more economic sense than producing chemicals from ethanol in the United States, particularly when you consider all of the other issues surrounding ethanol production
“For corn ethanol to compete with Middle East ethane on an energy basis, it would have to sell for a mere $0.15/gal, says Bahnolzer. Ethanol from corn costs about $1.74 per gallon to produce
Many of Banholzer’s points are summed up in an article he co-wrote for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Dow’s plan to make polyethylene from sugarcane in Brazil made sense because the company needed more capacity in South America and sugar cane was a competitive feedstock in South America.