10 April 2013

Analysis: Biorefineries – The future of the bio-based products production?

Market created new opportunities for integrated production of biofuels and value-added co-products

Refining has been done in the oil industry for many years but is less familiar to those in the biomass industry. Increasingly though the biomass industry is looking to integrate processes to make them more efficient, and biorefineries could hold the key.

NNFCC.jpgMost bio-based chemicals and materials are produced at single process sites. In comparison, biorefineries integrate a number of processes at one location, enabling the delivery of multiple outputs, like energy (fuel, heat and power), bio-based products (like chemical monomers and building blocks for bioplastics) and food or feed. This is more efficient than a single product process and is seen as the blueprint for the future bio-based economy.

But biorefineries are not new. The food and paper industries have been integrating bio-based production processes for decades, long before the term biorefinery had been coined. However, the growth of the biofuels market has created new opportunities for integration.

Biofuels driving biorefinery development
Many in the bioplastics industry would argue that biomass should initially be used at least once for its material value and then used to produce energy at its end of life, as in a cascading use system [1]. However, biofuels are currently the principle focus of new biorefinery development owing to the subsidies available for their use and the mature nature of the market.

Significant amounts of renewable fuels will be needed in the short to medium term to meet national targets. But while the size of the market is large, profit margins are not. In the long-term, making the biofuels industry more sustainable will require a reduction in cost. A promising approach to reduce biofuel production costs is to develop biofuel-driven biorefineries that integrate the production of fuels and value-added products, like bio-based chemicals and materials [2].

The added-value of these co-products makes it possible to produce biofuels at costs that are market competitive at a given biomass resource price. A 2010 study by Wageningen University and Research Center (The Netherlands) found that production costs of biofuels could be reduced by around 30 per cent when using a biorefinery approach [3]. This will also bring cost reductions for bio-based products.

Creating new opportunities
Biorefining platform technologies can include six-carbon sugars from starch, sucrose or cellulose; as well as mixed five- and six-carbon sugars streams derived from hemicellulose, lignin, oils (vegetable or algal), organic solutions from grasses, pyrolysis liquid, synthesis gas and biogas made from agricultural residues and wastes [4].

The chemicals produced by these biorefining processes can then be converted into a wide range of marketable products using a mixture of thermal, biological and chemical treatments.

A biorefinery can be as simple as producing fuel and feed at one site, as is the case with many first generation ethanol production facilities. But biorefineries can also be even more integrated, allowing resources and infrastructure to be pooled together to make a range of products. But this grand plan is no pipe dream. Biorefineries that integrate food, feed, fuel and chemicals production are already a reality.

From conception to reality
In France, the Les Sohettes biorefinery (pictured) is a cluster of facilities that convert feedstocks, like wheat and sugar beet, into a range of products such as heat, power, paper pulp, solvents, ethanol…the list goes on. Nothing is wasted, even the water is recycled. There is also a demonstrator project polymerising succinic acid into polybutylene succinate (PBS).

Similarly, the Blair Biorefinery in Nebraska, USA – owned by Cargill – integrates the processing of maize for the food industry with ethanol and lactic acid production. The lactic acid is polymerised on-site to make NatureWorks polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastics.

This integrated model could offer significant opportunities to bio-based chemical and bioplastics industries. According to the World Economic Forum, global revenue generated from biorefining could amount to US$300 billion by 2020, with the production of renewable chemicals and their polymers alone generating as much as US$15 billion.

[1]: German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. Innovation durch Forschung¸ Jahresbericht 2009 zur Forschungsförderung im Bereich der erneuerbaren Energien, 2009.

[2]: IEA Bioenergy – Task 42 Biorefinery. Biobased Chemicals – value added products from biorefineries, Feb 2012.

[3]: Bakker, R et al. Financieel-economische aspecten van Biobrandstofproductie: deskstopstudie naar de invloed van co-productie van bio-based producten op de financiële haalbaarheid van biobrandstoffen, Oct 2010.

[4]: German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). Roadmap Bioraffinerien, May 2012.

Source: NNFCC, 2013-04-10.


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