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Producing bio-based materials with cellulose still far away from industrialization

Starch is the first choice for raw materials for producing bio-based materials through fermentation. The price of starch is closely related to the cost of bio-based materials. Take polylactic acid (PLA) materials for example. PLA has the most advanced development among all the bio-based materials produced through fermentation in China. Based on the technology in China, generally 1.60 kg of starch can produce 1 kg of lactic acid through fermentation, while 1.30 kg of lactic acid can transform into 1 kg of PLA. In other words, theoretically, 2.08 kg of starch can produce 1 kg of PLA. Suppose the price of starch drops by USD1/kg. The cost of PLA would reduce by USD2.08/kg. Therefore, the cost of producing PLA can be largely reduced especially when the output reaches 5,000 tonnes or even >=10,000 tonnes, according to Bio-based Materials China News 1411 on November by CCM.

Also, China is abound with waste straw resources (straw is rich in cellulose). Both cellulose and starch can hydrolyze into glucose. Starch consists of glucose. Considering the above factors, producing low-priced starch with cellulose to reduce the cost of bio-based raw materials is a focal point for research. Many domestic enterprises even stated frankly that they have acquired technologies for the industrialization of producing starch with cellulose. So far, domestic or global enterprises are still mainly dependent on corn and cassava to produce starch so as to produce bio-based materials. Is it feasible to produce starch with cellulose or to achieve the industrialization of producing bio-based materials with cellulose?

Using cellulose to produce starch in order to produce bio-based materials is theoretically possible. The application of this technology in the industry still has a long way to go because of the unsatisfactory economic benefits. Although both cellulose and starch can hydrolyze into glucose, they are not isomers.

There are two problems that will inhibit the industrialization of producing sugar with cellulose. The first problem is removing lignin and retaining cellulose from the extractive of straw. The other problem is how to apply it in industrialization economically.

First of all, the cellulose advocated in China all come from waste, such as straw. Besides abundant cellulose, a large amount of lignin exists in the extractive of straw. Currently, it is technically difficult to only retain cellulose without lignin. Only few methods are available in this procedure in China. Purifying cellulose means a large expense. Not purifying cellulose will impact the purity in the subsequent procedure.

Moreover, in the step of cellulose hydrolyzing into glucose, generally in China, endoglycosidase, cxenzyme and exonuclease, C1 enzyme are used to help cellulose decompose into cellobiose, and cellobiose will transform into glucose with the help of glucosaccharase. Under the ideal reaction conditions set up in labs, the transformation rate from cellulose to glucose is only 1/3. However, during industrial experiments in China, some enterprises including Shenzhen Ecomann Bio-technology Co., Ltd. carried out experiments on producing glucose through this enzymolysis approach and faced many uncontrollable factors. The enzyme activity, by-products and other factors made the productivity of glucose drop significantly. The transformation rate of glucose is much lower than 1/3.

Furthermore, the selection of enzyme basically depends on the genes from bacteria, soil fungi and potatoes. And Escherichia coli (usually used as experimental model) is genetically modified with the genes to get the required enzyme. It costs about USD1 million to transform 200 kg of cellulose raw materials into 20 kg of starch. The cost is expensive, and often prohibitive for the the use of this method within this industry. Therefore, domestic enterprises turn to another method. This method involves destroying the cellulose' interior structures like hydrogen bond by setting extreme conditions such as high temperature and high pressure. The interior structure is then reconstructed to get the isomer of starch. In the industrial experiments in China, this technology can rarely reached its goal. The isomer of starch can be difficult to attain, as expected. Also, the cost for industrialization is very high due to the rigorous reaction conditions required. Therefore, this technology and method is uneconomical and has been shelved. 

It can be seen that the industrialization of producing starch with cellulose in China is very difficult and expensive, especially regarding the two aforementioned steps, let alone producing bio-based materials with starch from cellulose. The cost of producing bio-based materials with this method is much higher than the cost of producing bio-based materials directly with corn starch. Therefore, the value generated from the industrialization of producing starch with cellulose cannot be achieved at present. However, considering the large amount of straw requiring disposal (burning straw has caused major environment issues like haze) and the urgent demand for reducing the cost of bio-based materials, domestic enterprises have not deviated from their pursuits for the industrialization of producing bio-based materials with cellulose and the reduction in the cost of bio-based materials.

In order to realize the economic value of the industrialization of producing starch with cellulose, domestic enterprises are still seeking for technological breakthroughs to lower the cost for bio-based raw materials. In the bio-based annual conference in Nov. 2014, Professor Zhang Jun from the Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences (ICCAS) put forward the new technology that produces cellulose ester though the homogeneous functionalization reaction of cellulose in ionic liquid. In this technology, ionic liquid promotes the homogeneous functionalization reaction of cellulose as a medium. Derivatives are generated through the reaction, such as cellulose ester and cellulose graft copolymer, which have homogeneous structure and good performance. Enterprises are a step closer to producing bio-based materials with cellulose thanks to this new technology. Currently, this technology has not been largely adopted in the industry. However, the ICCAS has tried it out at a small scale in some enterprises.

Besides, there is another way to produce bio-based materials with cellulose in China. This involves selecting suitable polarity plasticizer to destroy the coacervation of macromoleculein the cellulose of straw. Subsequently, this macromolecule with hydrogen bondin cellulose can flow under certain conditions. This produces thermoplastic bio-based materials. At present, it is not feasible to use this technology for industrialization.

In general, all the problems, regarding the purification, enzyme, conditions of industrial experiment, economic benefits, etc., have not been effectively solved for the industrialization of cellulose. The technology for the industrialization of producing bio-based materials with cellulose in China is not mature yet, and there are no signs that there is a solid foundation for industrialization to occur.

Table of Content:  Bio-based Materials China News 1411

Development of bio-based PET severely hindered by overcapacity and declining demand of  pertrochemical PET

Backwards development of bio-based succinic acid against development of bio-based PBS in China

Analysis on development of biodegradable plastics

Standards for bio-based materials industry highly required in China

PLA boasts strong development potential despite restriction from raw materials

Crankcase cover made from bio-based PA awarded innovation prize

Bio-based PDO applied in furniture coating field

First bio-based smart card project launched in China

ICIS Asian Polyolefin Conference sees bright prospect for biodegradable plastics in Asia

Sun Australia establish strategic partnership with TIB, CAS

Kingfa witnesses surged limit

Envonik passes FDA certification for PA1010

Guangdong Shangjiu makes technology investment into overseas bio-based material projects

Development of bio-based materials still relying on policy support

R&D focus of bio-based materials shifts to modification technology for application

Producing bio-based materials with cellulose still far away from industrialization

China makes breakthrough in straw enzymolysis to produce bio-based ethanol and butanol

CNITECH, CAS makes progress in cellulose chemical transformation technology

Harvested corn launched on market forms downward trend in corn starch price in China

China's castor oil market tends to recover from


Biomaterials, referring to products using renewable raw materials, have developed rapidly in China in recent years and are expected to have a promising market in the future, though this industry is emerging. Biomaterials are mainly divided into four types in the news: natural bio-based materials, microbial synthetic materials, chemical synthesis of bio-based materials and bio-nylon. Undoubtedly, the application of biomaterials is the trend in the future, thanks to environmental protection, excellent properties, etc. Biomaterials China News includes12 to 14 topics per monthly issue andwill bring you the latest information on the market and company dynamics, new biomaterials products, new biomaterials technology development, new legislations and policies and raw material supply dynamics that are shaping the market.


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