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Photo of two hands holding biomass materials. One is holding a charcoal briquette made from coffee husk, and the other is holding wood shavings.

The petrochemical industry makes a myriad of products from fossil fuels. These plastics, chemicals, and other products are integral to modern life. The same or similar products can, for the most part, be made from biomass.

Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, which are various combinations of carbon and hydrogen. Biomass components are carbohydrates, which are various combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The presence of oxygen makes it more challenging to create some products and easier to create others. In addition, the wide range of types of biomass should make it possible to make new and valuable products not made from petrochemicals.

The processes are similar. The petrochemical industry breaks oil and natural gas down to base chemicals and then builds desired products from them. Biochemical conversion technology breaks biomass down to component sugars, and thermochemical conversion technology breaks biomass down to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Fermentation, chemical catalysis, and other processes can then be used to create new products.

The biorefinery concept posits that some of these products, while possibly small in volume, could be high in value. A particular biorefinery would make a mix of low-volume/high-value products and high-volume/low-value fuels to meet energy needs.

Bioproducts that can be made from sugars include antifreeze, plastics, glues, artificial sweeteners, and gel for toothpaste. Bioproducts that can be made from carbon monoxide and hydrogen of syngas include plastics and acids, which can be used to make photographic films, textiles, and synthetic fabrics. Bioproducts that can be made from phenol, one possible extraction from pyrolysis oil, include wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation.

For more information on bioproducts research, visit the U.S. Department of Energy's Biomass Program. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, another U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory, conducts research in bioproducts as well.