The Bioeconomy of the Future
Discover how our technologies could create a future bioeconomy
The Future of Biorefining
In our modern world there is a seemingly limitless requirement for chemicals, materials and energy. In direct contrast, the earth’s resources are finite, ultimately leading to higher costs of raw materials that are used make every day products. Biorefining could provide a cost-effective and renewable way to meet the demand for new products without costing the earth.
Biorefining is the process of transforming bio-based feedstocks into useful products, helping to address today’s environmental, social and economic issues.
Advances in industrial biotechnology allow renewable materials from agricultural and forestry residues and municipal solid wastes to be converted to bio-based products. One very promising method for converting these is the development of microbial fermentation. It is anticipated that microbes of all kinds can be used to make chemicals and fuels, which may directly replace or perform better than the products derived from fossil fuels consumed today.
By using fractionation technologies to break apart these renewable materials, each fraction can then be applied to higher value products as part of a wider bio-economy concept, which can help to address today’s environmental, social and economic issues.
Traditionally, the industrial sugar used for microbial fermentation is extracted from cereal crops, however only a small proportion of the crop is used, as the majority of sugars are inaccessible to traditional processes. The remaining fraction is known as lignocellulosic biomass and is generally discarded. Development is ongoing to access the sugars locked up in waste-derived feedstocks such as agricultural residues, forestry residues and post consumer waste.
Microbial fermentation of carbon-rich gases is an emerging technology that will drive development in technologies such as anaerobic digestion and gasification. Both technologies produce an energy rich gas which can be injected into the national gas grid for energy, or used in gas fermentation processes to produce higher value products such as chemical intermediates.
The two platform approach uses both sugar and C1 Gas fermentation as an integrated solution to make use of all available feedstocks, helping to reduce the risks associated with feedstock availability, price fluctuation and supply bottlenecks. CPI believes that without flexibility to use multiple feedstocks, it is highly unlikely that bio waste-based processes will be viable in the long-term.
The biorefinery would first fractionate the easy to access sugars using conventional technologies, then access the remaining sugars using advanced industrial biotechnology. The residues from this process can either be harvested for their chemical properties or gasified to produce C1 Gas which is then converted by gas fermentation to high value products.
CPI takes an integrated approach to work in biorefining and has on going activities in the development of both C1 Gas and sugar from waste feedstocks.
Helping to combat the effects of climate change
According to the World Economic Report on The Future of Biorefineries, “Industrial Biorefineries have been identified as one potential solution that may help mitigate the threat of climate change and the seemingly boundless demand for energy, chemicals and materials”.
Reducing dependence on fossil fuels
Biorefineries have the potential to decrease the reliance on fossil fuels, while utilising waste streams such as methane and post consumer waste as a feedstock; waste that would have otherwise had an impact on greenhouse gas emissions through incineration or depositing to landfill sites. According to The Department of Energy and Climate Change, waste management currently accounts for over a third of methane emissions in the UK.
Utilising biomass rather than fossil fuels is carbon neutral when compared to the release of carbon from fossil fuels, as the carbon released during processing is only equal to the carbon locked up over the lifespan of the organism. This is compared to releasing carbon from fossil fuels, which has been locked up over millions of years.
Traditional raw materials are fluctuating in cost
Changing demand for finite resources leads to fluctuations in price, meaning that products we use every day could cost more to manufacture and oil reserves will eventually be depleted. By using bio-based and waste raw materials, products could become more cost-effective to manufacture.
The market is growing, which means a boost to the economy, manufacturing, and more jobs
In economic terms, growth in the EU bio-based chemicals market is estimated at 5.3% p.a., resulting in a 2020 market worth €40bn and providing over 90,000 jobs within the biochemicals industry alone. Furthermore, a recent report by BCC has claimed that global demand for bioproducts will increase by 12.6% over the next five years, from €284bn to €513bn in 2018.
It’s all helping towards a circular economy
In a recent report compiled by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, Professor James Clarke from the University of York explained that the organic carbon content of food wastes is almost the same as the carbon used in all chemicals produced in the world today. Biorefinery outputs have various uses in end products such as food and drink, construction materials, paints and coatings, road transport and aviation fuels, plastics and composites in consumer products, and textiles.
Feedstock, Product, Process
The diagram above shows how many different bio-based feedstocks, both purpose grown and those re-directed from landfill or released into the atmosphere as carbon emissions can be turned into commercial products through biorefining processes. Matching the feedstock to the end product takes careful thought in both economic and technical terms and CPI is mapping out how wastes in particular can be transformed into products of a much higher value.
There are challenges to be overcome before biorefining can become a mainstream technology. CPI works collaboratively with companies to develop biorefining technologies, helping to overcome these challenges.
High investment is needed to build plants capable of handling feedstocks and processes. CPI provides open access to over £21m worth of equipment that can be used to prove bioprocesses on a pilot and demonstration scale, helping companies to build a business case for investment into production facilities of their own.
Developing a range of new bioproducts requires investment in technologies, which may take many years to develop, meaning they may be out of reach for businesses who have the ideas but lack funding. CPI is currently assisting companies in developing bioprocesses using both sugar and gas feedstocks for transformation to a host of biochemicals, fuels and many other products useful in everyday life.
A supporting infrastructure is needed to ensure that feedstocks are made available for use in biorefining. A large proportion of potential feedstocks are currently burned or sent to landfill. CPI is working to build supply chains to secure feedstock supply within the bio-based industry. CPI’s Dr Graham Hillier said in the House of Lords Select Committee “There is a need to incentivise the diversion away from incineration into added value. It is an important factor in the success making it all happen because technically we can do it. This whole focus on how you join up the technology chain and the delivery of the new technology into the market is vital.”
Changing Land Use
The food vs fuel debate rages on, and using land to grow crops for use in biorefining rather than crops to feed the population is controversial. Using wastes as feedstocks could ease this pressure, but the supply chain and processes need development.
Through the process of biorefining, feedstocks are transformed into useful bio-based products to be used in a variety of industries and markets.
In the future, many different consumer products may contain materials derived from bio-based feedstocks.
Bioplastics, made from biopolymers are already utilised in plastic food packaging, mobile phone cases, sunglasses, pens and personal care packaging for products such as shampoos and conditioners. Investigations are underway into other potential applications for products such as vacuum cleaners.
CPI is working with companies such as Plaxica and Dyson to establish new pathways to bioplastics from waste materials, and investigate applications in consumer products.
Biochemicals may also be utilised in processes to formulate personal care products such as make up, shampoos and skin care. Many biochemicals are also used in the production of dyes, tanning agents, nylon and polyester, all of which are vital materials in the production of textiles for carpets, clothing and upholstery.
Extracted Cellulose Fibres are absorbent and tough, and can be extracted from raw materials for use in composites as a replacement for glass, and in many applications where absorbency is needed, such as use in nappies, cat litter and sanitary products.
Heat and Power
Gas from biorefineries can be combusted to produce heat and power. Methane can be directly injected in the gas grid, to heat homes and produce electricity. A biorefinery will produce enough energy and heat to cover its own parasitic load and also be a net exporter to the grid.
Food and Drink
The food and drink industry uses many products that can be produced using biochemicals — from bioplastics which are now widely used for packaging in supermarkets to flavours, fragrances, sweeteners, souring agents and acidity regulators which are used in a wide range of food products.
Biorefineries can also extract neutraceuticals such as dietary supplements and herbal products, and specialist chemicals can even be used to help ripen fruit ready for sale.
Biorefining can present a significant opportunity to develop medicines that have been difficult to produce via other means due to purity issues. Bioprocessing can be used to develop new pathways to convert low cost feedstocks into high value products, including active pharmaceuticals and their intermediates.
Biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel are blended with petrol and diesel to meet legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. Blending biofuels into road transport fuel can reduce their carbon impact. The fuel quality directive allows for up to 10% ethanol to be blended into petrol.
Reducing the carbon footprint by producing aviation fuel from bio-based feedstocks is also heavily in development, with biorefineries being constructed to produce low-carbon alternative fuels to fossil-derived jet fuel.
Feedstocks are bio-based materials with carbon content or the carbon-based element of post-consumer waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill or burnt.
Waste streams with carbon content have the potential to be used as feedstocks for fermentations to bioproducts.
These waste streams include
- Forestry and agricultural residues
- Industry and Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
- Waste gases from industry or anaerobic digestion plants
They can typically be separated into two types; sugar feedstocks which are primarily plant or paper based, or gases.
These feedstocks present a big opportunity as they do not compete with food production and would otherwise be burned or sent to landfill, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Forestry residues are created during harvesting and include small trees, tops, and unsaleable wood from fellings and thinnings.
This feedstock is challenging to process as the sugars contained in the wood are locked up and can only be accessed through harsh chemical pre-treatment, which is costly.
The harvestable resource of forestry residues could amount to 40m tonnes in the EU. However it is estimated that only around 3% of forest residues are currently collected in the EU due to issues with cost effective transportation. Currently the majority of residues are burnt.
Pulp and Paper
Black liquor, a waste product from the process of producing kraft paper, consists of hemi-celluloses and lignin. Currently, black liquor is burned by paper mills in order to generate heat and power, making the paper mills’ operations self-sustaining. However it is proposed that the hemi-cellulose (the sugar) fraction could be used in sugar fermentations to bio-based products prior to burning, extracting high value materials before residues are burned.
Alternatively, the lignin fraction could be gasified for processing in gas fermentations or chemically converted to chemicals and fuels.
Post Consumer Waste
Collected from domestic households and industry, Post consumer or Municipal Solid Waste, would otherwise be destined for landfill. In processing, the metals and plastics are removed retaining only the carbon-based fraction such as food, paper, cardboard and fabric. The remaining material can then be converted to industrial sugars to be used in fermentations to chemicals and fuel, or dehydrated and used as Refuse Derived Fuel. This has the potential to not only reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, which would go some way to meeting the EU Landfill Directive, but also has the benefits of being readily available and not in conflict with the food vs fuel debate.
Many agricultural crops yield residues that can be used in biorefining. These can include arable crop residues such as straw or husks to be processed to sugars for fermentation, animal manure, slurry and litter which can be used in anaerobic digesters to produce biogas, and other products which may be oversupplied such as silage.
This group of feedstocks has a potential for both sugar and gas fermentation pathways.
The fermentation of carbon-rich gases is an emerging biorefining technology and of major commercial interest. Gas streams include the increasingly abundant (albeit controversial) supply of gas from shale development, biogas produced from anaerobic digestion, carbon monoxide from industrial processes and synthesis gas from the gasification of raw materials such as biomass or post consumer waste.