The challenge for SuBiCat

The challenge for the SuBiCat ITN is to facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to biomass. This ITN will train a new generation of scientists which will be equipped to solve one of the GRAND challenges that our society is facing: the change from a fossil fuel based society to a society based on clean and sustainable conversions of renewable feedstocks. This challenge concerns the whole world and is especially a threat to European welfare and economic prosperity. Meeting it will require the European and the world’s chemical industry to change from an industry built on fossil fuels to one that delivers completely sustainable production based on renewable resources. To address this significant societal problem, we believe the next generation of European researchers will need skills at the interface of biology, chemistry and engineering, thus defining the central goals of SuBiCat.

The Inevitable Decline in the Use of Fossil Fuels as a Source of Chemical Feedstocks Although it is possible to argue about the exact amount of fossil fuel-based resources that remain available, the important issue is that these resources will run out. Considering the arguably more important driver of environmental issues as well, there is no other option but to take action now. Fossil fuels are not only used for energy, they are also the traditional feedstocks of the chemical industry. The societal and economic impact of the EU’s chemical industry is obvious. However, the industry is at a turning point as environmental issues race up the World agenda. Whilst there seems likely to be many solutions to the renewable energy problem, the chemicals and materials which impact every aspect of our life will continue to be carbon-based. The question becomes where does the carbon come from in a post-fossil resources world? A shift to chemistry based on renewable sources is therefore inevitable for the chemical industry. The most abundant renewable resource for energy and a plethora of useful chemicals and materials is lignocellulosic biomass. This feedstock is not only more abundant than the relatively easier to process feedstocks such as sugars, starch, oils and fats, but is also non-edible. Indeed, lignocellulose, consisting of 40-50 % cellulose, 16-33 % hemicellulose and 15-30 % lignin, can be exploited as a source of chemicals and energy without compromising food production as it is indigestible by humans. It has been estimated that the annual global production of biomass through photosynthesis corresponds to 56.8 109 tonnes of elemental carbon. The biomass production capacity in Europe amounts to 1.9 x 108 tonnes of oil equivalents (toe) with a likely increase to 3.0 108 million toe by 2030, which is more than sufficient to supply all the raw materials for the chemical industry. These impressive numbers show that valorisation of biomass for chemical industry does not compete with food production.

The Essential Role of Catalysis

The major hurdle for the competitive exploitation of lignocellulosic biomass is the efficient depolymerisation of lignin. Catalysis will play a key enabling role in addressing this challenge as this allows chemical conversions in a faster and more selective fashion. Therefore, the development of novel, highly selective catalysts to aid lignin processing is increasingly important and will be a driver of successful future biorefineries. However, whilst a single catalyst (homogeneous, heterogeneous, biological or a combination of these) may be able to cleave one type of linkage in lignin, other linkages will remain untouched. Achieving total depolymerisation of lignin will require several different catalyst systems which will have to be combined in what can be termed a “pathway approach” to the processing of lignin. This requires both the development of selective catalysts for each different linkage and the combination of many catalysts to deliver an integrated process. Once suitable homo-, heterogeneous or biological catalysts have been identified and integrated, the processing of lignin to important chemical feedstocks will be achieved with high atom-economy, avoiding laborious work-up and purification processes and with little or no waste production.