The transition from fossil-based raw materials to renewables is a key 21st century challenge.
Many of the raw ingredients used for manufacturing in the chemicals industry are petrochemicals, based on crude oil. As a finite resource, this causes a number of problems.
The cost and supply of oil can fluctuate greatly, and the geopolitics of sourcing oil adds further uncertainty for the manufacturers of oil-based chemicals.
Efforts to find an alternative are focusing on biological materials - such as carbohydrates and oils - but these must undergo inefficient transformations, resulting in waste, before they can be used.
Terpenes could provide a possible solution. Low-cost and potentially plentiful in supply, they could prove a boon to the UK economy.
Reducing reliance on petrochemicals
Terpenes are an abundant class of natural products - available in citrus, turpentine, and pine oils - and they can be easily turned into chemical feedstock using existing petrochemical technologies.
While they've been used in limited quantities since ancient times (mainly as flavours and fragrances) they have yet to be exploited for the production of feedstock - even though they represent a potentially vast resource.
Currently, terpenes are mainly available as waste products from the wood processing industry, and are available in relatively large quantities. But with a new chemical industry based on terpenes as feedstocks then those supplies will run out. It would be uneconomic to grow pine forests just to make turpentine.
A new industrial biotechnology approach, developed by Amyris and others, promises large-scale and geographically flexible supplies of terpenes via fermentation of plant sugars and cellulose waste.
So the exploration of new technologies for the chemical exploitation of terpenes is timely, not only in terms of the sustainable use of current global resources, but also to take advantage of major developments in industrial biotechnology.
Turning terpenes into useful chemicals
In order to develop a sustainable and integrated platform for manufacturing industrial chemicals based on terpenes, an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Bath are addressing four key areas necessary for taking terpenes from raw materials right through to part of the manufacturing process:
- developing new terpene sources - trying to persuade bacteria to turn their natural terpene supply into some of the more useful terpenes that could be used as chemical precursors
- developing sustainable chemical transformations - looking at the catalytic technologies that might be employed in converting terpene raw materials into useful chemicals
- scaling up conversion processes - developing new integrated technologies for terpene-based manufacturing, ultimately via microbial fermentation of waste cellulose
- achieving a full understanding of the technical, environmental and economic factors associated with new terpene-based manufacturing technologies.
Benefits to the UK economy
This project will help provide a competitive advantage for one of the UK's most successful industries.
Chemistry-reliant industries contributed an equivalent of 21% GDP to the UK economy in 2007 and support 6 million jobs. And turnover is growing at 5% a year.
Industrial biotechnology is vital to sustaining our competitive advantage, with the value of the UK industrial biotechnology market in 2025 estimated at £4 billion to £12 billion.
The development of new integrated technologies for terpene-based manufacturing that this project is exploring will benefit UK firms through:
- new sustainable manufacturing processes
- reduced feedstock costs
- security of supply
- reduced environmental impact.
The UK will benefit further from exporting these new technologies and services, and from development of new skills vital to future low-carbon manufacturing.