Crops grown on contaminated land could fuel bioeconomy
The global bioeconomy is growing, but it must overcome hurdles including avoiding competition with land used for food production. An EU- and industry-funded project is exploring using contaminated and waste land for biocrops.
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By 2050, the global bioeconomy will require up to 24 billion tonnes of biomass, but the sector must overcome significant hurdles to reach its full potential. These include a lack of farmer confidence in the market for biomass, a lack of supply of biomass to the industry and the need to ensure that land for biomass crops does not compete with land used for food production.
The GRACE project, funded by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership between the EU and the industry, is advancing the bioeconomy by bringing together 22 players from the agriculture sector, bioindustry and scientists. They are demonstrating the large-scale production of novel miscanthus hybrid crops and hemp crop varieties on marginal and contaminated land as well as the use of the biomass in creating a wide range of products.
There are millions of hectares of marginal and contaminated land in Europe which could be used to provide feedstock for the bioeconomy without competing with food production and at the same time contribute towards revitalising rural economies, says Moritz Wagner, GRACE project manager and a researcher at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. GRACE will show that bio-based value chains can contribute to climate-change mitigation by replacing carbon-intensive fossil-based products with biobased products with low CO2 emissions.
Hemp and miscanthus
The project is focusing on two versatile crops miscanthus and hemp. These can be used in a wide range of applications central to the bioeconomy including basic chemicals, biofuels, bio-based building materials, composites and pharmaceuticals.
Project scientists have already developed a new type of miscanthus crop that can be grown from seed. Previously, miscanthus was planted using rhizomes; a costly planting method. The new varieties are designed to be of a higher quality, to be cold- and drought-resistant and to have similar yields to the standard miscanthus crop. Researchers are also studying the impacts of growing miscanthus on land polluted by heavy metals to see the extent to which the pollutants are taken up by the plants.
GRACEs miscanthus crops can be used in building insulation, lightweight concrete or concrete not used for load-bearing purposes bioplastics, bioethanol, chemicals and solvents used in industrial processes and consumer products, in textiles, automobiles and electronics and in composite fibres.
The project has already demonstrated bioethanol production from miscanthus straw at a pre-commercial bioethanol refinery in Straubing, Germany. It is also working on using the extracted lignocellulosic sugars from miscanthus straw to produce biochemicals for making bioplastics.
A use for by-products
The GRACE project is also exploring how to use by-products for example, the production of lightweight concrete using milled miscanthus, and miscanthus dust, which can be used in paper production. One project partner is pursuing this using miscanthus crops grown on unused land at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, GRACEs scientists have successfully used different components of hemp biomass including cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic cannabinoid, which is under development for the treatment of epilepsy.
The project has established more than 60 hectares of miscanthus and hemp on contaminated and abandoned land. GRACE researchers hope to extend the projects momentum beyond its official endpoint via its industry panel, which connects different sectors of the bioindustry to academics working in the field of biomass.