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Renewable Accounts: Narrowing the Scope of Bioproducts

The definition of bioproducts that I use in practice is products made using biomass that have a fossil fuel-based analog.

By David Ripplinger, Bioproducts and Bioenergy Economist and Assistant Professor

NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics

In my last column, I shared the standard definitions of biomass, bioproducts, bioenergy and biofuels. You may recall that the definition of bioproducts is extremely broad because it encompasses all products made with living material: food, feed, fiber, biofuel and more.

Supporting the commercialization of bioproducts using that definition aligns with value-added agriculture and is far more than one economist or research team can handle. It also is more than the North Dakota Legislature intended when it created the bioenergy and bioproducts economist position.

Fortunately, a more focused definition exists. The definition of bioproducts that I use in practice is products made using biomass that have a fossil fuel-based analog. Of course, many bioenergy and bioproduct conversion processes produce valuable coproducts that can and are used as food, fiber and feed.

An obvious example is dried distillers grains as livestock feed. However, while capturing the value of coproducts can be critical, it isn’t the primary driver of new projects. Biofuels remain a class of bioproducts under this definition. In fact, it’s best to think of biofuels as biochemicals that are cheap enough to burn.

While limiting the scope of bioproducts to those with fossil fuel analogs is helpful, the scale of the petrochemical, coal and natural gas-based chemical industries is colossal. The domestic plastics sector alone is almost $400 billion in size, which is 10 times the size of North Dakota’s gross domestic product. The global market is five times larger than the domestic market.

If capturing just 1 percent of the global plastics market, bioplastics would be half the size of the current domestic ethanol industry. This is to say nothing of other intermediate and final products such as resins, fibers, lubricants, gels, dyes, detergents, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and sealants.

One can’t help but appreciate the role of agricultural, petroleum, chemical and materials engineers who identify new processes or improve existing ones. Among the most enjoyable parts of my job is working with experts in other fields to determine the economic feasibility of new crops and conversion processes. In all cases, innovations, such as a new plant or cropping practice, belong to someone else. My role is to determine if the innovation is profitable and how to create and capture the most value from it.

A side note: As an NDSU Extension Service specialist, it’s my job to be unbiased in research and Extension activities. It’s not my role to pick projects that are winners or losers. I’m happy to share my expertise whenever the phone rings or my email inbox dings.

However, there is a technology that I’m glad no one has contacted me about yet, which is the conversion of manure to biogas using a method called “wet explosion.” If at all possible, I would like to steer away from this.

NDSU Agriculture Communication – June 7, 2013

Source:David Ripplinger, (701) 231-5265, david.ripplinger@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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