Adopting a Circular Economy: The Biorefinery Concept

As economic and political landscapes around the world drive industry to more sustainable and economically viable sources of fuel, producers are rapidly turning to alternative production processes and sources of energy. For many governments, part of this shift involves adopting a circular economy approach, utilising all aspects of ‘waste’ throughout the production chain.

The concept of the biorefinery embraces this standard by making use of the entire waste stream, recycling secondary products, valorizing co-products and even producing the very energy with which to power the process itself. Electricity for the facility can be generated through combustion of an unutilized biomass, which can then generate electricity.

The concept mirrors the more traditional operations of petrochemical processing facilities, where crude oil is separated into a range of marketable products across the chemical and fuel value chains. Crucially however, whilst petroleum refineries derive the majority of their products from crude oil, biorefineries use renewable raw materials to create valuable, bio-based chemicals and materials.

Beyond Biodiesel

Government policies around the world are evolving to guide producers towards seeking more sustainable sources of fuel and engaging in more sustainable processes. What’s more, economics is driving the production of high-value chemicals or chemical intermediaries from potentially similar sources. These two outcomes are in no way mutually exclusive, and the commercialization of processes where sustainable fuel and high value products are created together to ensure the maximum economic benefit is already being realised.

Take for example the collaborative project between Norwegian firm MicroA and Scottish industrial biotechnology company GlycoMar Ltd., which has seen the development and patent of a polysaccharide product created in a photobioreactor, a chamber that allows the controlled and optimized growth of microalgae. These polysaccharide molecules produced by the algae, Prasinococcus capsulatus, have natural anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties, making them ideal for use in sunscreens, moisturisers and wound care products. The research is the first in a series of projects, funded by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), which will increase the UK economy’s share of the predicted £360 billion industrial biotechnology global market.

biorefineryImage credit: Glycomar

The project signals a drive toward a bioeconomy that is becoming less and less reliant on fossil fuels. What’s more, with the success of the project the two companies have formed Prasinotech Ltd., the first algae refinery in the world built to manufacture these polysaccharides from microalgae. Registered in Scotland, Prasinotech will have a major role in Scotland’s economy and is the first company to grow from IBioIC support, which aims to incubate 7 start-ups by 2020. The first two products from Prasinotech Ltd will be active ingredients for use in cosmetic skincare which have a combined annual value of £1 million (US $1.3 million) in the third year of production.

The Biorefinery Process: Feedstocks

Biological feedstocks, which should be sustainably sourced, are the principle input for the biorefinery process. They can be defined as any biological raw material that is either used directly as fuel, or manipulated in some way to create another product. Common biological feedstocks include lingo-cellulosic sources such as purpose-grown crops (i.e., sugarcane), woody plants, straw and algae.

Acid is used to encourage the feedstock into exposing its valuable component sugars, primarily the polymeric cellulose. After pre-treatment, the cellulose is broken down into its constituent monomers. Industrial biorefineries will then use a number of enzymes that work cooperatively to break down cellulose through hydrolysis. Once the hydrolysis of cellulose into glucose has been completed, microorganisms can begin the process of fermentation into ethanol.

Projects are currently being accelerated to create biofuels from the by-products of the whisky industry. Whilst the organic by-products of whisky (referred to as draff and pot ale) have virtually no value, they are rich in a number of sugars, such as glucose, xylose and arabinose. Celtic Renewables, a Scottish company and core member of IBioIC, is using Clostridium bacteria to enzymatically convert these sugars into ethanol, butanol and acetone. Separating the final products also yields a solid component, which can then be sold as animal feed.

Integrate to Valorise

Biorefineries will become key for governments to embrace more circular economies and encourage an outlook which utilizes all ‘waste’. Already the UK government has awarded Celtic Renewables an £11 million (US $14.4 million) grant to build a bespoke biorefinery facility in Scotland. The principle behind the circular economy stresses the utilization of this waste with the least intervention possible and to only release the carbon by combustion as the final option. A biorefinery center actualizes this concept by extracting the greatest value from organic feedstocks, valorizing the entire integrated process.

biorefineryImage: A biorefinery facility. Credit Andre Klaassen.

Based on this principle, a project to generate fermentable sugars from locally available waste streams is in development between IBioIC and GSK. Whether this is timber waste from nearby forestry operations or paper waste from local mills, the common theme is that it all contains cellulose. This sugar will be used to replace corn-based glucose in GSK’s process with the remaining plant material being burnt to produce heat and power for the site.

The idea can also be applied to local solutions, such as local low carbon demonstrator projects, integrating local energy generation with local energy use. In this area, IBioIC is supporting Xanthella, a small industrial design company that is working on producing systems to grow microalgae. The company is working on a £2 million (US $2.6 million), two-year collaboration project that has been awarded £500,000 (US $655,875) from the Scottish Government’s Local Energy Challenge Fund for the first year of feasibility studies in the initial development of a large scale algal production facility in Ardnamurchan in Scotland.

This production facilitiy will be the largest in the UK and will help unlock the potential of locally generated renewable energy to transform the prospects of communities and industry in some of the most remote areas of Scotland. The process is ideal for matching with intermittent renewable energy generation, using the energy at times when it is abundant and cheap, at the same time as enabling grid balancing.

Although much of the technology behind commercialization of the biorefinery concept is still in its infancy, the concept has been proven. The collaborative projects between IBioIC members have demonstrated that the challenges around raw material availability and homogeneity, scalability of the model and mapping of the value added chain can be addressed to further the biorefinery’s realization at a commercial-scale. 

Lead image: Image: IBioIC lab. Credit IBioIC.

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Dr. Paul Hudman is a biologist who has always loved the variety the discipline allows him. From spending time as an undergraduate student surveying coral reefs in the Caribbean to his postgraduate studies in bacterial fermentation he’s always been fascinated by what biological systems can achieve and adapt to. After completing his doctoral thesis Paul moved into drug development and safety testing of biologics holding numerous scientific, managerial and commercial roles over nearly a decade. He joined the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre not long after its launch and has been working to develop strategy, engage companies and forge new relationships ever since. The variety of these interactions and technologies at the nexus of biology, chemistry, engineering and environmental sciences is what keeps him excited about what is developing in this field and the potential it has for industry globally. Follow IBioIC on Twitter @IBioIC . Follow Paul on Twitter @hudmanpaul.

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