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'Green chemistry' sees bright future in detergents, makeup

PARIS -- Biorefineries and “green chemistry” seem to have a credible future built on a wide range of applications such as cosmetics, plastics and detergents.

The rise of the price of oil and increasingly restrictive health legislation covering dangerous products are giving a boost to green refining.

Some “green chemistry” factories, a few of which exist in France, break down organic molecules found in wood, grain, and oil seeds, instead of using molecules derived from refined oil.

“The regulatory constraints are such that, together with the current cost of oil, it is already interesting for lubricants, resins and paints,” said Professor Daniel Thomas, vice president of the IAR competitiveness center in Picardie and Champagne in northwestern France. He was referring to the use of vegetable material in the refining process.

The European Commission directive known as Reach, which is due to result in a ban or drastic regulation of some chemical products such as phthalates, also opens the way to economically viable options for the use of other molecules derived from vegetable matter, leaders in the field meeting in Paris underlined.

In Europe, 34 production facilities are considered to be biorefineries. There are five big centers in France, and the tally does not include laboratories or test laboratories.

Thomas said that “green chemistry is not a theoretical concept but is already a reality.” He continued: “But it is true that this reality covers also the fact that the market is dependent on the price of oil, and that this border line is going to shift and so more and more molecules are going to become worthwhile.”

For example, in the 1950s the price of a ton of oil was one sixth of the price of a ton of wheat. In 2011, oil was three times the price of wheat.

A study by consultants McKinsey has suggested that half of the input used by the chemicals industry could be in the form of vegetable matter by 2030, with the development of biocarburants like lubricants, solvents and a concrete-like material made from wood for the construction industry, or plastic for bottles.

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