For decades, biorefinery of lignocellulosic biomass into its major components has focussed on the extraction of cellulose. During the four-year BIOCORE-project, several European research institutes and companies including Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research have bundled their expertise and identified possibilities to extract other components, such as lignin and hemicellulose, from this type of biomass. These components can be used for a variety of interesting biobased products. BIOCORE has resulted in successful demonstration of applications in bulk chemicals, polymers, specialty molecules and 2G biofuels.
Using an innovative, patented Organosolv technology, BIOCORE has overcome current hurdles linked to lignocellulosic biomass fractionation. In this way, the project was able to give appropriate focus to other technological steps required to transform biomass components into valuable products. A second challenge that was tackled was the ability to use several types of lignocellulosic biomass in biorefineries. So far, biorefinery technologies have been rather biomass-specific, which is a disadvantage to biomass constrained regions such as Europe. In BIOCORE, multiple feedstocks including cereal straws, hardwood and rotation woody crops have been fractionated into its major components for further valorisation.
Commercially interesting results: bio-PVC and lignin-based plywoodpanels
In BIOCORE, several biorefinery chains from feedstock to end-products have been demonstrated on lab and industrial scale. Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research played a key role in the fractionation and chemical conversion of lignin fractions into polyols and in the conversion of carbohydrates into furan based isocyanates and plasticizers. Sugar syrups derived from cellulosic glucose and hemicellulosic pentose have been used as starting material for the production of bio-based substitutes of oil-derived thermoplastics. In this way, a sugar-derived biobased plasticizer that outperforms the standard phthalate plasticizers in PVC for its flexibility properties has been created.
Also, organosolv lignin was tested as a solid co-polyol for the solvent-free production of Polyurethanes (PU). Polyurethanes (PU) are among the most versatile plastic materials known and form the basis of many consumer products, such as insulating panels, shoes (soles), mattresses and toys. Organosolv lignin was successfully used towards castor oil-based PU elastomers, as a liquid co-polyol for rigid PU foams and to substitute phenol in the preparation of PF resins for the manufacture of plywood panels. A partner prepared for pilot scale manufacture of plywood panels a PF resin in which 50% of the phenol component was replaced by lignin. The resulting plywood panels displayed technical properties that were perfectly comparable with commercial ones, meaning that it is feasible to commercialize lignin-based plywoodpanels for interior or exterior use. Several patents were filed following these remarkable results and project partners have started to make processes ready for commercial upscaling.
Enabling technologies and process design methodologies
Next to R&D work towards commercially interesting end-products, significant contributions to the development of biorefinery-enabling technologies were made in BIOCORE. Examples are the development of engineered microbial strains for several applications, such as the conversion of pentose sugars into added-value products and isopropanol containing solvent mixture. Wageningen UR successfully looked at the continuous isolation of isopropanol during the fermentation to achieve a higher production rate with 40%. Also, together with partners new process design methodologies that address the specific challenges of advanced biorefineries have been developed.
Upscaling to demo plant
The results obtained in BIOCORE will be further pursued by the upscaling of the organosolv fractionation in a demo plant (by industrial partner CIMV). Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research will continue the fractionation of lignin to produce lignin fractions with more homogeneity and functionality towards the use in added value products like resins and coatings. In 2014, a patent for the lignin fractionation has been filed. Wageningen UR will also continue working on the synthesis of furan based molecules for polymer applications.
The complete end report of BIOCORE can be downloaded here.