Academic institutions and small and large companies are now talking about building a more sustainable future, where technologies and products are created with consideration to the environmental and social impact they may have. Green Chemistry provides such an opportunity to produce and support innovative and evolutionary, environmentally-aware research and development efforts, focused toward developing and sustaining future industrial processes and products based on positive environmental and economic advances. The question remains whether one can actually make money and sustain a business with a green chemistry business model. 

If renewables and waste are to sustainably supply all of the Earth’s chemical and materials needs, it will not be done through emphasis on commodity chemicals from biomass for which there are current markets, but rather will arise from discovery and development of new things: new materials, new chemicals, new uses, new products, and new markets which are as of yet unforeseen. Creating new products and new markets involves a strategic thinking model and ability to look beyond the accepted boundaries, followed by revolutionary, not evolutionary, implementation. Sweden’s biomass reserves have great potential in both sustainability and economic value, but new and even established chemical businesses based on bioproducts often struggle or even fail because they rely on the traditional or outdated approaches designed and used by the petrochemical industry.

The well-established “biorefinery” model, in which biomass is converted into commodity chemicals and fuels for high-volume global markets and a smaller amount of high-value chemicals, which offsets the cost of refining, suffers when it focuses on these chemicals. This model can eventually replace the use of petroleum with a renewable and carbon neutral resource, biomass, but it otherwise leaves the current global manufacturing paradigm of high resource intensity and energy usage intact. A change of model is needed.

Interestingly, throughout most of history survival depended (and, in many parts of the world, still depends) on being able to find ways to use locally available resources, rather than finding resources for pre-conceived uses. The cheaper production of chemical building blocks is understandable, as post-industrial societies depend heavily on synthetic materials for high-tech needs. However, is it really necessary to take Nature’s abundant biopolymers such as chitin or cellulose and chop them up, or are these in fact easily accessible chemicals and polymers that can be used to replace (or even improve upon) synthetic materials? Such approaches are not unheard of – a classic example is the work of early 20th century scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, who is widely credited with revolutionizing the unsustainable monocrop culture of the southeast United States by developing dozens of uses for alternative crops (George Washington Carver: An American Biography. Doubleday: Garden City, 19). Critical to the success of Carver’s work was the fact that his inventions provided struggling farmers both with new markets to make money and inexpensive, readily available products to improve their own lives.

We therefore propose a new model for the future with its roots firmly in the past, discovery-based exploration and innovation with Sweden’s renewable biomass leading to new sustainable products and markets. This could position Sweden as the World’s leading economy based on technologies powered through sustainable use of abundant, locally available natural resources. Such technologies will protect the environment and maintain biodiversity by reducing the need for exploitation of specific reserves (e.g., oil) and provide economic equality and social justice by increasing the value of widely-available raw materials, renewable resources with currently limited value, and by-products