New efficient and sustainable biorefineries

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Posted By Irma J. McKeehan

World population growth – expected to increase by more than 30% over the next 40 years, from 7 billion in 2012 to more than 9 billion in 2050 – the rapid depletion of many resources, external energy dependence coupled with price instability, increased pressure on the environment and climate change are all factors that are making Europe need to radically change the way it produces, consumes, transforms, stores, recycles and disposes of biological resources.

Biomass is positioned as a renewable source of energy, but also of carbon, with which it is possible to reach a wide range of products, favouring this process of development of the bioeconomy and the use of resources to generate value-added markets and to promote the circular economy.

As shown by the different products already on the market that have very diverse applications, including the textile, cosmetic, pharmaceutical or transport industries, to name but a few. The exploitation of the significant amount of biomass resources that are underused represents an opportunity to advance along the path marked by the bioeconomy policy established.

Biorefineries are facilities that favour this conversion and use, as they replace the fossil resources used in petrochemical refineries with other renewables (including waste).

There are already operational biorefineries based on simple feedstocks, however, the ultimate goal is to develop plants that, from different feedstocks, generate multiple products including energy and biomass-based chemicals (building blocks and their chemical platforms).

But to achieve a commercial implementation of biorefineries it is necessary, among other steps, to decrease the associated costs and increase the efficiency of the conversions to bioenergy and bioproducts, a process that goes hand in hand with research and innovation.

The main objective is therefore the development of integrated closed-loop biorefineries that are sustainable and economically viable by making full use of biomass, minimizing the production of waste and generating the maximum possible value from available resources.

To this end, the research and development being carried out within the project is in line with developing quality control procedures for the reliable and consistent recovery of minimally degraded hemicellulose fibers and lignin macromolecules, as well as unpurified raw glycerol compounds, for subsequent treatment and revaluation.

The applications derived from these production processes are very diverse, allowing the generation of a wide range of by-products with possible application or use in areas ranging from biofuels to their possible use for the generation of prebiotics, bioplastics and materials.

In general, in many of the individual stages of biorefineries, these processes are not yet 100% optimized. The project will carry out a comprehensive life cycle assessment, evaluating and demonstrating the potential for scaling up and integrating project results into existing and future biorefineries, while defining biorefinery technology and product flow roadmaps to promote stakeholder awareness and engagement.

This new concept of biorefinery in which the project is framed represents a definitive advance by eliminating the problems associated with the generation of waste, giving them value in turn.

Thus, a significant increase in its profitability and competitiveness is achieved compared to its petrochemical equivalents, thanks not only to the improved efficiency of the process by treating a multi-product, and to the reduction of the dependence on food crops, allowing the sustainable use of a greater diversity of biomass resources.

The use of lignocellulosic biomass (LCB) for the production of biofuels and chemicals is important as the technologies have to meet the global demand for energy, reducing dependence on oil- or fossil-based resources and the impact of rising energy and feedstock demand costs, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

However, their use is not so simple as their recalcitrant behaviour makes biological conversion difficult. For this reason, pre-treatment is needed to convert it into the desired products more efficiently. Cellulose and hemicellulose are then hydrolyzed into sugars that can be biologically converted into biofuels and other high value-added chemicals.

This will create a positive economic impact in the bio-based products sector by supporting the generation of alliances and synergies between the industrial sectors related to biorefinery through the development of know-how and procedures for the use of crops.

Green and lignocellulosic raw materials; producing a wide range of products through the use of a combination and development of extraction, separation and fractionation techniques, catalysts, chemical-enzymatic transformations and fermentations with modified microorganisms, thus improving the transformation processes and therefore their efficiency.

These advances in science and engineering of biorefineries will bring about the characterization and development of enzymes and strains of microorganisms that together with other techniques will allow obtaining chemical products of industrial interest.

These impacts decrease dependence on oil and fossil products; create jobs and new businesses; adopt more sustainable and economical low-input agricultural practices; improve biodiversity by growing a variety of lignocellulosic biomass for biorefineries; develop the rural environment; provide tailored solutions to stimulate industries that can produce new bio-based products; as well as stimulate other industries due to the interrelationship between businesses.

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