Biobased polymers will triple in capacity from 3.5 mln tons in 2011 to 12 million tons by 2020. The 3.5 mln tons represent a share of 1.5% of an overall construction polymer production of 235 mln tons in 2011. Current producers of bio-based polymers estimate that production capacity will reach nearly 12 mln tons by 2020. With an expected total polymer production of about 400 mln tons in 2020, the bio-based share should increase from 1.5% in 2011 to 3% in 2020, meaning that bio-based production capacity will grow faster than overall production. That will equal 3% of total polymer production. Bio-based drop-in PET and PE/PP polymers and the new polymers PLA and PHA show the fastest rates of market growth. The lion’s share of capital investment is expected to take place in Asia and South America. Hardly any new production capacities will be constructed in Europe, according to a recently published report by German nova Institut.
The most dynamic development is foreseen for drop-in biopolymers, which are chemically identical to their petrochemical counterparts but at least partially derived from biomass. This group is spearheaded by partly bio-based PET (Bio-PET) whose production capacity will reach about 5 mln tons by the year 2020, using bioethanol from sugar cane. The second in this group are bio-based polyolefins like PE and PP, also based on bioethanol. But “new in the market” bio-based polymers PLA and PHA are also expected to at least quadruple the capacity between 2011 and 2020. Most investment in new bio-based polymer capacities will take place in Asia and South America because of better access to feedstock and a favourable political framework. Europe’s share will decrease from 20% to 14% and North America’s share from 15% to 13%, whereas Asia’s will increase from 52% to 55% and South America’s from 13% to 18%. So world market shares are not expected to shift dramatically, which means that every region of the world will experience development in the field of bio-based polymer production. Although Europe is strong in research and development with construction of pilot plants, most production facilities will not be come on stream in Europe. Europe is too expensive (labour, energy, feedstock), and there is a complete lack of industrial policy in this area. In USA, even though markets are under the influence of a glut of shale gas, developments in ‘white biotechnology’ will continue as usual.
Nova included (biobased) polymers PBS and PBAT in its study, although at present their production is almost entirely fossil based at present. They expect production of their building blocks succinic acid, adipic acid, butanediol (BDO) and terephthalic acid to be almost entirely biobased by 2020. These biobased building blocks might then be cheaper than their fossil based counterparts. Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) is an interesting example, as is polybutylene succinate (PBS); until now, these polymers are produced from biobased feedstock in small amounts, and them mixed in order to improve other biopolymer’s properties. Their building blocks can be produced both from fossil oil and from biobased resources, and biobased succinic acid is already cheaper than fossil based succinic acid. That explains the major interest in this product, difficult to produce from oil, but thought to become a major product when biobased. Succinic acid in turn is a feedstock for butanediol, and therefore the this biobased pathway to butanediol depends on the price of biobased succinic acid. But butanediol can be produced directly by fermentation as well, and some companies do so already. In producing and processing these polymers (PBAT and PBS), industries might increasingly be able to choose between biobased and fossil based. That will not be easy, but it is interesting, as it defines a battle ground between drop-in biopolymers and the old order of fossil based polymers. Competition will be both on price and on extra ‘green’ quality. The authors expect biobased alternatives to gain the upper hand by 2020. PBAT for 50% and PBS even for 80%. Drop-in biopolymers biopolyethylene (PE) and biopropylene (PP) will not achieve those percentages yet, then. But changes might be swift, if and when the green consciousness makes an breakthrough, and if government regulation would offer some help.