Biomass - biological material from living, or recently living organisms - is used as the basis for numerous products, but where this is not possible it can also be used either as an energy source or converted into other energy products such as biofuel. The promotion of biomass, along with the development of new conversion technologies, have been identified as being key to ensuring that Europe has a sustainable future.
Indeed, the share of biomass in European energy production is expected to grow in the next few years, which will necessitate the development of a range of new technical solutions for handling and combustion. In many instances, biomass, whether it is wood, refuse or waste, represents an untapped resource which has not yet been fully developed or commercialised.
This is why the Bioclus project, funded by the FP7 Regions of Knowledge programme, was launched in late 2009. The project aims to boost regional competitiveness in five European cluster regions - Central Finland, Navarre (Spain), Western Macedonia (Greece), Slovakia, and Wielkopolska (Poland) - by encouraging the sustainable use of biomass resources. These clusters are all located in rural regions, and all possess huge amounts of biomass resources - and potential - such as forests, industrial and agricultural by-products, field crops and municipal wastes.
"Even before this project began, we were already involved in partnering on biomass-related issues and have been investing in biomass-related R&D for many years," says Kirsi Knuuttila, project coordinator from Finland's JAMK University of Applied Sciences. "However, we wanted to go further, but needed a suitable network. The Regions of Knowledge programme was the perfect tool."
The initiative has so far enabled the five regions to produce regional research agendas and joint action plans as a focus for future research activities, increase the exchange of expertise and build up person-to-person contacts. Regional authorities, researchers, and businesses have all been involved. For example, ten biomass professionals from across the regions recently participated in an international benchmarking study tour to Michigan, USA, and five international study tours have been scheduled. Successful collaboration within the project has already resulted in actions based on the regional research agendas and joint action plans.
And because working effectively with biomass requires new technical and practical competences, promoting innovation is also central to Bioclus. The clusters involved are all intent on improving their research activities. The challenges and research needs associated with agro-biomass combustion and handling of biomass, for example, were discussed and debated at an international workshop organised through the project in Jyväskylä, Finland, in November 2011.
The project placed a strong emphasis on regional development. "Biomass-related activities by their nature cannot be totally outsourced," explains Knuuttila. "This means that biomass resources offer great potential to Bioclus regions in terms of promoting regional prosperity." This looks particularly promising, considering that the global trend is now very much geared towards replacing non-renewable energy sources with efficient and sustainable ones.
"A major focus is on building up businesses that are based on understanding and experiences of the local environment, and are sustainable," continues Knuuttila. "After all, it is important that they stay. Here in Finland, we have a great deal of experience in ICT, but we also have experience of companies moving away from here. The thing about biomass is that it is a sustainable resource, and you have to actually be here to access it. Hopefully, therefore, businesses will also be sustainable, and will stay longer."
Studies in each region have been carried out in order to assess business potential and the innovation environment. "We've learned more about our own region, and what the other regions are like. This has made it easier to focus on the areas we have in common. When a project is about co-operation, it is important that everyone benefits." All this has led to the development of joint action plans (JAP), which define the activities needed to achieve the targets set in each region's Strategic Research Agenda. These SRAs aim to strengthen regional competencies in the sustainable use of biomass.
"We need results!" says Knuuttila. "We need to achieve better sustainability in biomass-related businesses. For instance, we want to develop a biomass supply chain with transparent sustainability, and focus on other key areas for the clusters." As the Bioclus project has shown, this can best be achieved through the collaboration and integration of research communities throughout Europe, which aim to improve the business and innovation environment through mutual learning and mentoring.
"We believe very much in sustainable co-operation, and we expect that collaboration will continue after the completion of this project," says Knuuttila. "We will be seeking future opportunities." Knuuttila is interested in pursuing issues such as evaluating sustainability more accurately, gaining a deeper understanding of business opportunities, and understanding how regions can better generate sustainability.