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Chemical commodities

The idea of producing chemicals from biomass is a long-established one. Indeed, before the advent of the petrochemical era, the industrial revolution was fuelled by coal and biomass. In the 19th century, technologies that allowed the production of chemicals such as acetic acid, methanol and acetone from wood were already known. Similarly, ethanol production from sucrose was an industrial activity and during World War I, processes for producing ethanol from wood chips were used to provide fuels for vehicles.

Today, biomass is still a starting material for certain chemicals. However, these are mainly made in fermentative processes, which use glucose as feedstock. Prominent examples of biomass-based chemicals are citric acid (market size 880 000 t/year), gluconic acid (60 000 t/year) and itaconic acid (15 000 t). More recent examples include lactic acid, which is used for the manufacture of the renewable polymer PLA and 1,3 propandiol (PDO), which is also used for polymer applications. Compared to the current chemicals market (300 Mt/year), these bio-based chemicals represent rather minor activities.