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Eco-friendly chemicals

Ralph Ahrens / csc
January 13, 2014

Chemist Herman Fischer dreams of paint, plastics and drugs - lots of them, all made from plants and without any crude oil. It's a vision of a new kind of chemical industry.

Wandlasur Wachs AURO Naturfarben
Image: AURO AG

Crude oil is always getting more expensive. And this is doubly annoying for the chemical industry because petroleum remains the main raw material of its products. But it doesn't have to stay that way, according to chemist Hermann Fischer.

"Biomass, plant material, can replace crude oil entirely," he explains.

In 1983, Fischer co-founded, Auro, a Braunschweig-based manufacturer of natural paints. The company produces paints from plants and minerals and has sales of around seven million euros ($9.6 million) a year.

No chemical substances from crude oil, natural gas or coal are used for Auro's products, Fischer says. So, for example, his yellow paint contains pigment extracted from the reseda plant, which grows on the meadows in eastern German Thuringia, and aluminum oxide. Nothing else.

Biomass- an inexhaustible resource

"Every year, nature releases more biomass than would be needed to let all the chemical factories in the world do without crude oil, natural gas and coal as their raw material," Fisher says.

Some manufacturers are already using biomass; for example, for the production of adhesives and detergents. These days, even plastic bags and packaging more are than often being made from biologically degradable polylactic acid.

Laptop or cell phones housings are in part made from composites with plant materials. Hemp, flax or wood fiber are just as good at insulating as crude-oil based styrofoam or polyurethane. And even lubricating oil can be from plant-based materials, says Fischer. They are even more resistant to the cold and heat as conventional oils.

Herrman Fischer AURO
Chemist Hermann Fischer's company only uses organic products for paintImage: AURO

Chemicals from biomass have a future

Despite this, chemical products from biomass remain a niche product. There is still a lot of research to be done in order for chemicals to be produced in bulk from natural materials. But the future has begun for phytochemistry. Researchers at universities and in industry are looking for ways to make valuable products from wheat or from the lignin in wood fibers.

Fischer does not think the argument that the use of plants could lead to hunger for people in Africa, Asia or Latin America is valid. He says people only eat a small amount of food plants. With cereal, it is only the grain that is interesting for manufacturers, while it's the oil with rapeseed. And whoever extracts linseed oil from flax seeds only uses about two percent of the flax plant. The rest - fibers, colorings and resins - are unused. Flax can provide insulating fibers, oil for linoleum floors and food rich in protein. It's important to use this versatility, says Fischer.

Maize in a field
Bottles can also be made of bioplastic, which is produced from plant materials like cornImage: Fotolia/siwi1

But he's critical of another way of using biomass chemically. Many chemical companies want to break up remains of wood in organic refineries into fragments so that they can make new chemicals from them. But this is counter-productive. Fischer sees it as creating a new petrochemical on the basis of plant material.

"It's stupid to have plants built into complex structures using natural solar energy, and then destroy them and use huge amounts of energy to build new complex structures," he says.

Using less to do more

Hermann Fischer knows that his vision cannot be immediately applied to the existing chemical industry. But he enjoys wrestling with representatives about his concept and the right way for the future. And he even goes one step further: "Any mass chemical product will have to be justified," he says.

What's clear for him is that fewer resources must be used to achieve the same effect in the future. For example, many disposable plastic products could be more durable if they were reinforced with natural fibers.