Key role for biorefineries in the circular bioeconomy

Biorefineries are highlighted as a key element in meeting the global need for better use of bio-resources in a Nordic project aiming to identify existing biorefineries in the region, main obstacles and opportunities for further collaboration. With the right incentives and regulatory framework in place, the Nordics could develop more efficient technologies and conversion processes, create a stronger market for healthy and sustainable bio-based products and spur job growth across a large variety of sectors.

By Páll Tómas Finnsson

Population growth and climate change both call for new solutions
One of Europe’s leading biotechnology scientists, Professor Lene Lange from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), has led a Nordic effort to map bioeconomy-relevant test facilities in the region. The mapping was conducted within one of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ green growth projects, Nordic Test Centres. Lange explains that the entire global community needs to make better use of its biological resources in order to feed and fuel the world in a more sustainable way.

“We must take better care of the world’s resources and exploit them more efficiently and sustainably,” she says. “For the sake of the climate, we need to use nature’s own degradable and renewable resources to substitute for the fossil resources and synthetics that we rely on today.”

“From the perspective of Nordic development we should move fast forward, developing new technologies for making not just fuel but also higher value products as food and feed ingredients by upgrading crop residues, food processing side streams and bio-waste.”

According to the UN, the world’s population passed the 7 billion mark in 2011 and is expected to reach 8 billion in 2024. Demand for food, feed and fibre is expected to double by 2050, and this will put enormous pressure on the globe’s scarce agricultural resources.

“The population growth means that we need to get more out of the land available for agriculture,” Lange explains. “Less than 50 per cent of everything we harvest currently ends up as feed or food. This shows that there is a lot of residue, waste materials and side streams that are not being exploited to their full potential. Another resource with great potentials for biorefinery upgrade is the seaweed biomass and by-products from fishery.”

Biomass conversion into higher value products
The term biorefinery embraces all facilities that convert and upgrade biomass into valuable products – food and feed ingredients, bio-materials, bio-chemicals and bio-fuel, while the alternative downgrading use of biomass is to burn it to produce bioenergy for electricity and heat. Biorefineries therefore encompass everything from artisan dairy companies to large, automated bio-fuel production facilities. The key challenge is to get the highest possible value out of the biomass in a sustainable manner.

“In most parts of the world, including Europe, focus has almost exclusively been on converting biomass bioenergy: biofuel for renewable transport energy and combustion for heating and electricity. The last is the lowest value you can get out of the biomass,” Lange explains. “All the Nordic countries, however, have also taken more ambitious steps towards upgrading bioresources to produce e.g. more feed and food.”

Recovering and refining more proteins from the available biomass is important for meeting the rising global demand for protein rich animal feed and food. Due to a limited supply in Europe, a significant share of the protein that is fed to the region’s animals comes from imported soy protein from South America.

“Approximately 72 per cent of all arable land is currently used for producing animal feed,” Lange says. “By producing protein-rich feed from our biological side streams, waste streams and crop residues, we could free up land for producing more food and conserve biodiversity.”

Broad Nordic bioeconomic expertise can make a difference
Whereas many countries focus mainly on the so-called yellow biorefinery, processing wheat, straw, corn stover and wood, the Nordic countries also possess vast expertise relevant for the blue bioeconomy, which entails marine bioresources, green biotechnology, upgrading grass, clover etc., and biorefineries for upgrading agro-industrial side streams, often referred to as grey biotechnology. Along with better exploitation of bio-waste from municipal waste sources, these areas represent some of the biggest potentials for developing new technology, processes and bio-based products.

“This is where Nordic expertise could really make a difference,” says Lange. “Not only in our own countries, but also to encourage better and more sustainable use of natural resources all around the world.”

Changes to regulation to remove obstacles for developing the new bioeconomy
Most Nordic countries are developing national strategies and initiatives to develop their bioeconomies, but a common Nordic strategy would allow the countries to reap even more benefits from a strong, circular bioeconomy.

“First and foremost, it’s a driver of increased employment in everything from farming and transportation to scientific research and engineering,” she affirms. “We therefore need to create framework conditions and incentive structures that allow the biorefineries to seize the many opportunities available.”

”The obvious upside of working together is that we could bypass bottlenecks in upscaling the processes, update the regulatory framework and access a larger market,” she continues. “Taking a new bioproduct from the lab to pilot scale and demonstration level is very costly. A Nordic approach would mean that these upscaling facilities could be used by many more participants. We can share facilities without necessarily sharing results, hereby allowing for both common research and industrial competition.”

Lange mentions EU’s bio-fuel blend-in directive, requiring all fuel to include a certain percentage of biofuel, as an example of a well-designed incentive to create and stimulate a market for new bio-based products. She also emphasises that the regulatory framework needs to be adjusted to remove obstacles for companies wanting to utilise the bioresources in innovative ways.

“We’ve seen examples of new, safe and sustainable feed or food products being rejected because of an out-dated regulatory framework,” she says. “As an example, excess gelatine from production of sweets cannot be moved into the feed sector, as it’s only approved for human consumption.

“It doesn’t make sense from a food and feed safety point of view, it’s only because of the traditional silo mentality in the regulatory framework. This has to be rethought.”

Europe to invest in the bioeconomy
Professor Lange urges the Nordic countries to use their experience and bioeconomy expertise to influence EU-regulation and make way for a transition towards a more circular economy. She also encourages Nordic stakeholders to participate in international consortia on the development of the bioeconomy, notably within the EU’s new €3.7 billion public private partnership programme, the Bio-Based Industries (BBI) Joint Undertaking.

“One of the outcomes we hope for is that the Nordic bioeconomy priorities, including the blue bioeconomy, the green biorefinery and higher value products from the yellow biorefinery, will be well represented, and that we’ll initiate and be part of many of the granted consortia,” says Lange. She adds that the Nordic countries should encourage the EU to include biorefinery investments in Jean-Claude Juncker’s €315 billion strategic investment plan for Europe.

“In my opinion, biorefineries should be among the prioritised infrastructure investments in the Nordic countries and in the EU, because they can deliver most efficiently on all parts of the vision for a smarter, more sustainable and more inclusive Europe.”

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