EuroBioRef – How a radical re-design is strengthening economic viability in the bioeconomy
For most people, the bioeconomy is the way of the future. A shift towards an economy based on renewable resources not on fossil fuels is no longer just an option, it's a necessity.
The word "bioeconomy" has only existed since the late 1990s. And while the biotech story is undoubtedly an exciting one, it is equally important to find an economically viable way of implementing its techniques and getting the resulting products to their end-users.
If the target is to achieve a genuinely functioning bioeconomy – placing just as much emphasis on the 'economy' side of the concept as the 'bio' part – significant progress is still needed.
At the very heart of this issue lies the biorefinery – the plant where raw materials (generally biomass) are treated, processed and turned into their final product.
Existing biorefineries are limited in the types of biomass feedstock they process, the technologies they apply and the final products they focus on. This has the effect of substantially limiting the added value that can potentially be achieved.
EuroBioRef is an EU-funded project set up to address this problem by identifying improvements in bio-refinery design and operation.
These improvements could play a pivotal role not only in enabling a truly viable bioeconomy, but also in giving Europe an important competitive advantage in this vital new area.
With € 23 million of funding allocated under the EU's 7th Framework Programme, EuroBioRef brings together four different FP7 research themes: Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Biotechnology; Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies; Energy; and Environment (including climate change).
Established in 2010 and due to continue until 2014, the project is focused on developing a highly integrated, multipurpose refinery. In contrast with previous designs, this one would be capable of handling multiple feedstock's, processing them in multiple ways (chemical, biochemical, thermochemical), and producing multiple products, from aviation fuels to chemicals, polymers and other materials.
The project is also aiming to produce a design which is modular and flexible, allowing it to be installed in various locations around Europe as either large- or small-scale units as local conditions require.
The highly diversified nature of the new biorefinery design is vividly demonstrated by the range of project participants. The 28 partners are drawn from research institutions and commercial enterprises across the entire biomass value chain.
They include biomass producers, advanced biomass pre-treatment specialists, catalytic and enzymatic reactions developers, and final chemical and biochemical producers and endusers.
In addition to the production of a broader range of higher value-added products, it is expected that the greatly enhanced efficiency of the new design will yield significant benefits. These will include a 30% improvement in costefficiency, a 30% reduction in energy use, and zero waste production.
The work of EuroBioRef is still far from complete, but the potential prize is clear. The project will provide an efficient bridge between the agriculture and chemical industries by integrating the entire biomass chain in a single concept, adaptable for use in a range of locations. It is an advance which will do much to help provide a viable basis for the bio-economy as a whole.
It will also put Europe at the forefront of what is sure to be one of the most dynamic and important areas of economic and scientific activity of the future.