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Understanding BioBased Content

(We recommend reading the page on UNDERSTANDING RADIOCARBON DATING prior to reading this page.)


BIOBASED - materials that are derived in whole or part from biomass resources. Biomass resources are organic materials that are available on a renewable or recurring basis such as crop residues, wood residues, grasses, and aquatic plants. Corn ethanol is a well known example of a biobased material derived from biomass resources.

BIOBASED PRODUCT- a product that contains some amount of biobased material within it. The term is typically applied only to materials containing carbon.

NON-BIOBASED PRODUCT – a product that does not contain any biobased materials in it. Products made entirely from petrochemical resources are referred to as non-biobased products. The term is typically applied only to materials containing carbon. Glass, for example, is not generally referred to as non-biobased material since it doesn’t contain any carbon.

PERCENT BIOBASED CONTENT (“percent biobased”, “biobased content”) - the amount of carbon in a product that is derived from biobased materials, relative to the total amount of carbon in the product. The emerging biobased manufacturing industry is producing large numbers of products that contain mixtures of both biobased materials and petroleum derived materials. “Percent biobased” is a measure of the amount of the biobased carbon in the product as compared to the sum of biobased plus petroleum based carbon in the product. A Percent Biobased value of 75% would mean that of all the carbon in the product, 75% of it is biobased and 25% is petroleum based.

The purpose of a biobased content measurement is to determine how much of the carbon within a biobased product is derived from biobased materials. The value represents a measure of how much biobased material a company is using to manufacturer its products relative to the more readily available, less expensive petroleum based alternatives. The end use of this value is by federal procurement offices in assigning preferential procurement status to products purchased by the US government. (Understanding Preferred Federal Procurement)

 Amount of biobased carbon 
Percent Biobased Content =---------------------------------------------- x 100
 Amount of biobased carbon + Amount of petroleum based carbon 

The biobased content calculation does not take the total amount of carbon in a product into consideration. Some examples are listed below.

A product can be 60% carbon and only 1% biobased. This would mean that only 1% of all the carbon in the product is from biobased materials (the other 59% being from petroleum based materials).

A product can contain only 1% total carbon and be 100% biobased. This would mean that 100% of all the carbon in the product is from biobased materials.

A product can contain only 0.1% total carbon and still be 100% biobased. This again would mean that 100% of all the carbon in the product is from biobased materials.

Biobased Content – a working example: fiberboard composite

The biobased content of formulations containing mixtures of biobased and petroleum based components can be altered significantly by varying the proportions of the components. However, only the addition or subtraction of carbon containing components will alter the biobased content of the product.

For example, a hypothetical fiberboard composite containing 30% silica with 70% cellulose will have a biobased content of 100%. The silica does not contribute any carbon to the product. All the carbon is derived from the cellulose. If the formula is modified to contain 20% silica and 80% cellulose, the fiberboard will still be 100% biobased. All the carbon in the fiberboard is still coming from the cellulose.

If the silica is replaced with graphite fibers derived from petrochemicals (100% fossil carbon), the biobased content will decrease significantly. The graphite fibers are 100% carbon and derived entirely from petroleum based materials. The cellulose (which itself is only 44% carbon) now represents a significantly smaller proportion of the total carbon in the fiberboard. The same composite, now made with 70% cellulose and 30% carbon fibers will only be 51% biobased.

Manufacturers knowing the biobased vs. petroleum origin of raw materials will often be able to predict the biobased content of their products. However, experience has shown that unexpected petroleum components can be present in the total formulation.

When biobased content results don’t agree with predictions based on the formulation, a manufacturer generally has 3 options. One is to re-label the product. Alternatively, he can talk to his suppliers and track down the source of the petroleum in the raw materials. And thirdly, the biobased content of each component within the formulation could be measured. If, for example, all the components were predicted to originate entirely from biobased materials but one of them had unexpected petroleum carbon in it, a value of less than 100% biobased would be measured for that component. Perhaps a modification in the formulation could then be made, or use of an alternative supply, or substitution with a higher biobased component be made.

The BioBased Formulation Calculator illustrates how to predict the biobased content of a biobased product. By knowing the biobased content of each component, knowing the percent carbon in each component, and knowing the percent of each component in the formulation, the percent biobased content of the formulation can be derived (i.e. the biobased content of the product).

The BioBased Formulation Calculator is also a tool to predict how the biobased content of a product will change with changes in the formulation. This is a useful tool for understanding biobased content and how variable combinations of raw materials affect the maximum biobased content of a product.