Materials and energy derived from carbohydrates: Opportunities, challenges and sustainability assessment

Sivaram, S.
May 2007
Chemical Business;May2007, Vol. 21 Issue 5, p31
Trade Publication
Renewable resources and issues of sustainability are receiving increasing attention from academia, industry and Government. Carbohydrates or biomass produced by nature, through the process of photosynthesis, is believed to be the most abundant renewable resource on planet earth. Carbohydrates, in principle, have the potential to become the feedstock for producing materials and energy for human kind. It is interesting to observe that until the beginning of the nineteenth century global economy was entirely based on carbohydrates. Only with the discovery of petroleum, world shifted progressively from carbohydrates to hydrocarbons. With rising price of hydrocarbons, diminishing exploitable reserves, desire to reduce dependence on oil rich nations and insulate nation's economies from the vagaries of geopolitics, countries world over have been reexamining the imperatives of a shift from hydrocarbons to carbohydrates. However, it must be recognized that there are considerable challenges in building a carbohydrate based economy. Some of these are technological, whereas, others relate to logistics, land use competition and sustainability. Use of renewable resources is not a synonym for a sustainable process. Processes based on hydrocarbons can, often, be more sustainable than those based on biomass or other naturally derived resources. The process efficiencies realized from many petrochemical processes are often higher than those derived from biomass conversion processes. Science and technology in today's world are replete with hype and buzzword. An average citizen, often, believes that all the ills of the world can be cured if only all our energy or material needs can be met by renewable bio-based resources. Technology constraints often force policy makers to take decisions which are expedient but not necessarily prudent in the context of long term sustainability. The current plethora of announcements around the world concerning bio-fuels is a case in point. There are several nuances of the carbohydrate-based economy that needs attention. Unlike hydrocarbons, carbohydrates are not fungible, solids in nature and expensive to transport. Whereas, hydrocarbon conversion technologies can be easily transplanted in different geographies, carbohydrate conversion technologies require considerable adaptation depending on the geographic and climatic origins of the carbohydrates. Lastly, if carbohydrate-based technologies have to realize their true potential in the development of a sustainable society, it is of utmost importance that Government policy makers, business decision makers as well technology generators are provided with the correct assessment tools to enable unbiased quantification of the contribution of carbohydrate based technologies to sustain ability. This lecture will address key opportunities, challenges and issues in the creation of a sustainable materials and energy platform based on carbohydrates. It is indeed a great privilege and honor for me to deliver the Forty Third Shri Ram Founder Memorial Lecture, in memory of its founder, Lala Shri Ram Ji. Lala Shri Ram was a multi-faceted personality. He not only created wealth, but, distributed it through several institutions which bear his name today. As a great visionary he believed in the dictum that knowledge leads to progress of a society. He was also one of the earliest of our industrialists to believe that research and development is key to the sustenance and growth of productive enterprises. Shri Ram Research Institute for Industrial Research is a proud testimony to the vision of this great son of India. Lala Shri Ram laid the foundation of the Indian chemical industry. He pioneered the production of vinyl chloride from acetylene, which in turn, was generated from hydrolysis of calcium carbide, a technology that had its origin in Germany during the Second World War.…


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