Concerns about climate change coupled with Europe's dependency on petrol have led to calls for the increased use of renewable energies. Biomass is one such renewable energy source, and can be comprised of plant material, vegetation, or agricultural waste.
© Fotolia, 2012
Started in March 2010, the €13.92 million European Union (EU)-funded BIOCORE project is tapping into the potential of biomass. This four year project under the Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7) is finding out how different types of biomass such as rice straw, birch wood and hardwood can be converted into the molecular building blocks that are required to make chemicals, fuels, polymers and other materials. Put simply, BIOCORE is proof that there now exists a replacement for oil.
BIOCORE is a large-scale European collaboration involving 24 partners. By uniting 8 companies, one NGO and 15 universities and R&D institutes, BIOCORE benefits from a wide panel of expertise and representatives from 13 countries, including a world-class Indian R&D institute, which supplies vital data that will help understand how bio-refining can be developed in India.
One preliminary result that has been obtained over the course of BIOCORE is the production of wood adhesive and ethanol, each using biomass intermediates extracted from wheat straw. Lignin, which is an organic substance binding the cells, fibres and vessels which constitute wood, is another important focus area in BIOCORE. Lignin replaces oil-based phenol in wood adhesive formulations that are used to make plywood panels. The 'BIOCORE' plywood panels also emit less of the pungent formaldehyde gas than current commercial panels.
"BIOCORE's overarching aim is to identify the best ways to use non-food biomass resources to supply modern industry with suitable raw materials to make the products that society requires," says BIOCORE's project coordinator, Michael O'Donoghue from Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in France. "In this respect, the results mentioned above are important because they clearly show how a common non-food cereal by-product, such as wheat straw, can be converted into products that form part of our day-to-day life."
When considering current global challenges, which include the inevitable loss of fossil resources, coupled with the double need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and secure Europe's supply of industrial raw materials, it is easy to appreciate how BIOCORE's achievements could contribute to the development of a more sustainable mode of industrial production for Europe.
The project team behind BIOCORE is hoping to soon produce bio-ethylene a colourless gas used in the chemical industry - and bio-Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) a widely used plastic. In addition, apart from wood adhesive, lignin is currently being studied as a potential component of many other well-known products, such as polyurethane foams and plastics that are found in a wide variety of commercial products such as binders and tiles.