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Turning liquid waste into wealth

Alliance to develop


On 19 October, it was announced that five established research centres across the UK have formed a new alliance seeking to position Britain as a global leader in biorefining technology development and bio-based product manufacture.


o reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, there must be a change to plant-derived biofuels

and chemicals.

However, producing them cost- effectively from plants and other organic matter – collectively referred to as biomass – is a major engineer- ing challenge. Most biomass comes in the form of non-edible trees and other plant life, which contain sugars that can be fermented to produce fuel, but biomass also contains lignin, a bulky, complex or- ganic polymer that fills wood, bark, and generally gives plants rigidity. Because it is difficult to process, lignin is usually discarded during biofuel processing.

EPFL scientists at Ecole Polytech- nique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have now turned lignin from a nuisance into an important source of biofuel by simply adding a common chemical, converting up to 80% of it into valuable molecules

for biofuel and plastics.

Lignin is an enormously complex biopolymer, filling the hard wall that surrounds each plant cell. In fact, lignin makes up almost a third of plant biomass and its molecular structure gives it an energy density 30% greater than that of the sugars that are traditionally processed into biofuel. The problem is that lignin is difficult to extract and transform. Due to its instability, lignin is often rapidly destroyed during its extrac- tion and most researchers have failed to efficiently break it apart for upgrading into fuels or chemicals. Now, an international team of re- searchers led by Jeremy Luterbacher at EPFL, has shown

that they can easily break lignin apart simply by adding the chemical formaldehyde to the

process. Formaldehyde is one of the most widely-used chemicals in industry and it is simple and cheap to produce. The researchers found that formaldehyde stabilises lignin

Lignin extraction with (left) and without (right) formaldehyde.

and prevents it from degrading, leading to high yields of building blocks that can be used to make substitutes for petro-chemicals. These yields were three to seven times higher than those obtained from lignin without formaldehyde. “Depending on the wood used, we get between 50-80%,” said Luterbacher, adding that, “The chemistry is relatively straightfor- ward; the real challenge is actually finding investors for a pilot facility to demonstrate this.

“The technology looks really good,” confirmed Luterbacher. “If the global political establishment sent a consistent message about moving away from fossil fuels, then investors would take notice, so I’m quite optimistic about the future”. More information from

Bioproducts support rural economy in US

A new report by the US Depart- ment of Agriculture (USDA) shows that in 2014, the biobased products industry contributed $393 billion and 4.2 million jobs to the US economy. The ‘Economic Impact Analysis of

the US Biobased Products Industry’ also indicates that the sector grew from 2013 to 2014, creating or sup- porting an additional 220,000 jobs and $24 billion over that period. This report is the second of

its kind by USDA and it analyses revenue and jobs created by the biobased products industry at both the national and state level. More information from

The founding centres of the BioPilotsUK projects are BEACON in Wales, the Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC) in York, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in Redcar, IBioIC in Scotland and The Biorefinery Centre in Norwich. BioPilotsUK brings

together the nation’s leading expertise and facilities to help innovative ideas to navigate the so-called ‘valley of death’ by demonstrating new bio-based processes and products at a commercially- relevant scale, thus helping clients invest in the right technologies to grow their businesses. The bioeconomy offers a multi-billion-pound, global business opportunity as it is worth around 2 trillion Euros in Europe alone and is growing rapidly worldwide.

“What we are all about is supporting the transition away from fossil resources by making the best use of biorenewable materials and unavoidable wastes,” explained Adam Charlton, BEACON Project Manager from the BioComposites Centre at Bangor University. “As an alliance, we can significantly de-risk the innovation process for anyone exploring a bio-based idea.”

More information from

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(picture courtesy of Alain Herzog).

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