Renewable resources are not infinitely available and the production of green raw materials also has a large impact on the environment. Hence, it is important to use renewable resources efficiently. “Biorefinery plays a key role for that process,” said Herman Wijffels at the opening of the three-day international symposium Biorefinery for Food, Fuel and Materials (BFF) in April 2013. The aim of biorefinery is to use all ingredients of biomass for the best possible application: in food, chemicals, materials, energy or fuel.
Wijffels, Professor of Sustainability and Social Change at the University of Utrecht, is a famous advocate of the transition to a “circular economy”. He stated that the use and reuse of biomass for food, biomaterials, bioenergy and biofuels also plays an important role in a circular economy, which is based on recycling and reusing products. Efficient use of agricultural commodities requires biorefinery; the unraveling of the building blocks in the raw material. The carbohydrates, proteins and fats which are useful for food, for example, could be separated from the components that are valuable as a raw material for materials, chemicals, energy or fuel. “And do not forget to extract the nutrients and bring these back on the land, to keep the soils healthy,” said Wijffels.
Johan Sanders, professor Biobased Commodity Chemicals at Wageningen University, calculated that an annual worldwide production of 20 billion tons of biomass is needed if the aim is to replace thirty per cent of the fossil based raw materials by biobased raw materials in the year 2050. To put that in perspective: 5 billion tons of biomass are used annually for food and feed (grass and seafood not included), 4 billion tons of wood are burned for cooking and heating homes and 2 billion tons of biomass are used for timber, cotton, paper and other “traditional” biobased materials.
Carrying capacity of Mother Earth
Conclusion: biomass production has to be doubled in the coming decades. This has an enormous impact on natural resources such as soil, water and nutrients. Furthermore, agricultural production contributes to about 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, to loss of biodiversity and to pollution of soil, water and air. All speakers at conference center Hof van Wageningen therefore emphasized that it is essential to use the products that are harvested as efficiently as possible. “We must produce within the carrying capacity of Mother Earth,” said Aalt Dijkhuizen, Chairman of the Executive Board of Wageningen UR. Herman Wijffels added, “Currently we use more than the earth can sustainably deliver. That should not go on for too long, because by depleting and polluting the planet we are decreasing the carrying capacity of Mother Earth.”
No distant future
The speakers did not just shape views on the distant future. In fact, the general introductions were brief and it soon became clear that biorefinery is already being applied. Marcel Wubbolts, Chief Technology Officer at chemical company DSM, proudly mentioned that his company had invented the process for the production of biodiesel that was used during the Olympic Games in London. The diesel was still based on sugars from food crops (so-called first generation biofuels), but DSM is now working on processes to use non-edible biomass as raw material. Wubbolts also spoke passionately about the development of enzymes that can withstand higher temperatures, could therefore be added in an earlier stage to biomass that was preheated and consequently could convert biomass into the required sugars at a much faster rate. Also, DSM had managed to drastically reduce the use of antibiotics in its biorefinery processes, because it had found other solutions to keep the microorganisms healthy. Wubbolts’ story showed that many petrochemical based monomers and polymers can be replaced by biobased counterparts, but not every technical breakthrough immediately results in market breakthroughs. For instance, Wubbolts was very enthusiastic about DSM’s enzymatic production of succinic acid, but he had to admit that the demand for this hydrolysis process was, so far, below his expectations. Of the list of dozens of substances that can be produced through biorefinery, only a handful is already being produced at a sufficiently large scale and low cost to make the process economically viable. However, the lists of biobased building blocks that were close to market introduction looked promising.
More than new technologies
On April 8, the symposium Biorefinery for Food, Fuel and Materials 2013 was mainly about technological applications to make biomass suitable for use in food, materials, chemicals, energy and fuel. “But,” stressed Wijffels several times, “the transition to a circular economy requires more than the development and introduction of new technologies.” A biobased economy, in which agricultural commodities are raw materials for both the food and non-food sectors “requires a close integration of these sectors,” Johan Sanders had said. Hence, on April 9, various sessions were held about constructing new collaborations, supply chains and infrastructures to accommodate a biobased economy. On April 10, there was much focus on new business opportunities. Biorefinery concepts that are close to being implemented were showcased.
About Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research
Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research is the R&D organization closely related to Wageningen University. The research focus is on sustainable innovation in the areas of healthy food, sustainable fresh food chains and biobased products. Food & Biobased Research works closely with these authorities to develop creative solutions to gear up for sustainable and profitable growth. Food & Biobased Research consists of two business units: Fresh, Food and Chains, and Biobased Products.
Wageningen UR, press release, 2013-06-16.