Learn What’s New in Biobased Products

Products from biomass and other plant-based sources are back in the spotlight.

By Jodi Helmer

Despite sharp decreases in oil prices over the past few years, the growth of biobased products marches on. Consider that more than 1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced in the first quarter of 2016—equal to almost half the total cellulosic ethanol produced in all of 2015, according to the EPA. And USDA is offering new funding for development of advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and other biobased products, creating markets for growers of biomass crops and other inputs.

Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, says “Each sector [of the biomass industry] has its own challenges based on its maturity in the marketplace,” yet he believes the first-generation biofuels have achieved “tremendous success.” With the help of EPA support and favorable tax codes, next-generation biobased products could thrive as well.

Here are some of the latest developments.

Sweet sorghum

Sweet sorghum

Sweet sorghum

Because this tall-grass bioenergy crop has the potential to yield more energy per acre while requiring fewer fertilizer or chemical inputs than other crops, researchers hope to expand its footprint onto low-productive land where food crops typically aren’t grown due to seasonal floods. Their goal is to combine genetic modifications to improve sweet sorghum’s resistance to disease and flooding while generating higher levels of fermentable sugars for ethanol production, according to researcher Wilfred Vermerris, at the University of Florida. The improved varieties are now in commercial production, but it will take time for sorghum-based biofuels to hit the market. Vermerris notes that several commercial operations are on hold until the prices of fossil fuels rise or until there are mandates to produce non-starch-based second-generation biofuels.

Plant-based plastics

Lego made from plant based products

Lego made from plant based products

Plants could replace petrochemicals as the newest generation of plastic. Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory made thermoplastic—a light and durable material used in bumpers, kitchen appliances and LEGO bricks—with 50% renewable materials, including lignin, a rigid material in the woody cells of plants. Experimentation is also under way to use agave fibers to make bioplastics for vehicle components like wiring harnesses and HVAC units.

Soy foam

Soybeans have been used in products ranging from lubricants to adhesives. In 2015, the United Soybean Board’s (USB) Soy Checkoff program partnered with researchers to develop 29 new soy-based products and ingredients, including working with soy foam to create sustainable versions of insulation, packing material and mattress filling. Thousands of currently available soy-based products are listed online in the USB’s Soy Products Guide.

Tobacco

Low-nicotine varieties of tobacco with more sugar and oilseed content are being developed for use in biofuel. The so-called “energy tobacco” shows a lot of promise. In July, South African Airways flew a Boeing 737 from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa with tobacco biofuel in its fuel tanks. Peter Majeranowski, cofounder of Tyton BioEnergy Systems, says, “Tobacco biofuel is at the forefront of a tremendous amount
of research.”