Greatest Challenge of Process Engineering

Greatest Challenge of Process Engineering

Author: Thomas Hirth, Roland Ulber, Kurt Wagemann

Currently, 2.7 m t of renewable raw materials are used in the German chemical industry. This accounts for more than 12 % of the total amount of raw material. The dominance of crude oil is slowly being eroded by renewable sources while gas and coal are also being increasing used as sources of raw material. The traditional role of renewable raw materials in the chemical industry is based upon the use of complex syntheses done by nature which cannot be replicated by direct synthesis from petrochemicals. Examples include polymers made from carbohydrates, cellulose, or starch, as well as tensides based on fat and oil.

However the role of renewable raw materials in chemical industry is changing dramatically at the moment: the trend is moving away from complex structures to elemental components.

Bioethanol is already used as source for ethylene, while glycerine a by-product of biodiesel production – can be used as a substrate for the synthesis of epichlorhydrine, and furthermore, the production of lactic acid and succinic acid by fermentation of sugar is being developed.

Biorefinery plays a key role in raw material change. Analogous to petrochemical refinery, biorefinery has to split biomass, fractionate and refine it economically to generate new bio-based materials. Availability, quality and price are the competitive factors. In addition to pure economical aspects, biomass should not base upon sources used for food production, and thus, the research focus is on economically and ecologically efficient synthesis routes using lignocellulosic biomass as a starting material.

Lignocellulose is a very stable compound creating a special process engineering challenge to efficiently combine biotechnological and chemical processes to specifically catalyze the transition of such complex raw materials with a large space-time yield.

Biotechnological microorganisms have to be optimized to produce platform chemicals or their precursors from cheap raw material reactions. For later biotechnology steps it is critical that earlier steps do not produce by-products like phenol or furan derivatives which are bad for microorganisms and act as fermentation inhibitors.

Knowledge about these processes has to be developed further. And politicians are asked to create legislative conditions which encourage biorefinery concepts within the chemical industry.

At the beginning of 2010 experts of science and economy met in Frankfurt a.M., Germany, to attend the 2. Symposium Industrielle Nutzung nachwachsender Rohstoffe – Chemie, Biotechnolgie, Verfahrenstechnik (engl. 2nd Symposia of Industrial Utilization of Renewable Raw Materials – Chemistry, Biotechnology, Process Engineering) to discuss scientific, political and economical aspects. A selection of contributions is published (in German) in the special issue of Chemie Ingenieur Technik 2010, 82 (8).


Shortened translation of the Editorial of Prof. Thomas Hirth (Fraunhofer IGB), Prof. Roland Ulber (TU Kaiserslautern), and Dr. Kurt Wagemann (DECHEMA).

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