An EU-funded project has developed new ways of converting biomass in Brazil into a range of higher value-added products, helping to cut waste, reduce fossil fuel dependence and strengthen sustainable paper-making practices. Several new technologies are now being exploited by project partners and licensed third parties.
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The LIGNODECO project was launched in 2010 with the aim of tapping the full potential of two fast-growing crops found in abundance in Brazil – hybrid eucalyptus clones and elephant grass. By developing new ways of breaking down these crops into biomass, the project team sought to reduce the need for fossil fuels and achieve greater sustainability throughout the paper-making process.
Sustainable business opportunities
New methods using enzymes, chemicals or simple mechanical processes were employed to break the crops down into their constituent parts in the most efficient way possible. These treatments are the first step in both biofuel and paper production. Pre-existing deconstruction technologies already used in the paper-pulp industry were successfully modified, while effective new biotechnological methods based on enzymes were developed.
Since project completion, consortium partners have been busy patenting and testing several treatments — including alkaline cooking, an ethanol-based solvent and various enzymes — that require no fossil fuel-based solvents and are more efficient at breaking down plants. The project team has also been able to identify potential new techniques that use effluent sludge from paper mills as biofuel.
“New treatments include a novel cellulase enzyme for improving paper strength, while new products include a high yield and high quality printing and writing paper grade pulp, and a highly absorbent tissue grade paper pulp,” says project coordinator Jorge Luiz Colodette from the Universidade Federal de Viçosa, Brazil.
“At least some of these new processes and products are currently being exploited by enzyme producing companies and pulp and paper firms. Trials or the novel cellulase enzyme are being carried out in a pulp mill in the north east of Brazil, while a pilot plant for high yield high quality paper is under construction.”
Securing jobs and investment
In the long term, the technologies developed within LIGNODECO will contribute towards improving the competitiveness of the pulp and paper processing industries as well as the forestry sector, securing long-term jobs and investment. Creating a sustainable biomass stream will also help to cut waste and encourage a transition to greener forms of energy.
“Pulp mills are usually located in rural and sparsely populated areas,” Colodette points out. “Co-location with a new bio-refinery would mean employment opportunities for local communities in areas with depopulation and decreasing job opportunities. The economic opportunities of forest owners will also be enhanced, and the competitiveness of forestry management improved.”
A key long-term impact of LIGNODECO will be its contribution towards decreasing dependency on fossil fuels for the production of both chemicals and energy. “Biofuels, especially cellulosic ethanol, are the only renewable liquid transportation fuel option that can be integrated readily with petroleum-based fuels, fleets, and infrastructure,” says Colodette. “Adding biofuels into the energy mix will provide substantial benefits in terms of national energy security, economic growth and environmental quality.”
Increasing the global availability of biomass feedstocks will provide both Europe and Brazil with a viable alternative to ongoing dependence on an increasingly strained oil-distribution system, and create a ready market for the novel biofuel production technologies that have been pioneered by the LIGNODECO project.