SUSFERT’s Complex Bio-refinery Chain for Bio-economy

Professor Georg Gübitz addressing the session at the International Conference on Fiber and Polymer Biotechnology (IFPB) which is held on the sidelines of the European Summit for Industrial Biotechnology (ESIB). Photo: © ESIB/Martin Benedikt

Moving away from fossil-based coatings for agriculture

SUSFERT is developing bio-based fertilisers for sustainable agriculture. The coatings of fertilisers traditionally are made from fossil-based coatings. SUSFERT has developed prototype fertilisers using plastic-free alternatives as coatings in its fertilisers.

Professor Gübitz addressed this in a previous SUSFERT BLOG, where he talked about the exciting developments on the potential use of fossil-free plastics from wood-based side side-streams for fertiliser coatings on SUSFERT.

Over the duration of the project, SUSFERT partners from Sappi and the Institute of Environmental Biotechnology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), have contributed research into the polymerization of lignosulphonates using a special enzyme, laccase.

The polymerization of lignosulphonates that are being used as coatings for fertilisers on SUSFERT provide an opportunity for further, possible circular economy valorization.

Here, Professor Gübitz talks about some of the key challenges of establishing new bio-refinery value chains for the bio-based economy. Capturing paper and pulp industrial side-streams from wood raw materials, like the lignosulphonates from Sappi, are needed to ensure zero-waste, and to reach the ambitious goals of the European Green Deal.  More importantly, these side-streams can be used to make plastic-free coatings for a multitude of purposes. The world needs to move away from fossil-based coatings and plastics to address the enormous problem of micro-plastics in the enviroment which is covered here.

“That means that the starting materials for the coatings should be from a bio-based origin, and end-product must be bio-degradable,” Professor Gübitz says.

Unconventional bio-based value chains

Finding new biomaterials to convert (or refine) biomass into either fuel, energy or chemicals for bio-based products require innovations from multiple stakeholders within common-interest sectors to establish new value chains that are considered unconventional at this present time.

Unlike the traditional fossil-based economy that has fewer, established players along the refinery/product value chain, we can safely say that establishing sustainable, bio-based economy value chains in bio-refinery environments are more complex, says Professor Gübitz.

The companies, or industries, involved in bio-based refining processes need to make strategic decisions as to what they will recover primarily. Will it be energy, water and/or chemicals, or even other substances? Ultimately, zero waste should be pursued if society wants to achieve true sustainability. Read about Sappi’s role on the project HERE.

Bio-refinery value chain needs multiple actors on one train

Gübitz says that from a technical point of view, some of the products on SUSFERT, like the soil improvers, are quite convincing so far. But if you want to implement what we know across the business and public sectors, and make a successful business case out of it, you need to have all the actors in one train at the same time — the providers of the material, the processing and refining companies, and also the companies selling the product, knowing that there is a market for it.

He says the challenge in the bio-refinery environment is that you need to create a business case for all the various stakeholders, individually.

“Along the bio-refinery value chain, around four to five business cases need to fit together and correspond to the interests of all these players along the value chain at the same time. This is when we have an impact.

But this is special to the bio-refinery sector, the complexity. So, the actors need to be in different carriages, but they should all be on that one train heading in the same direction.

Conversely, in the crude oil refinery you are dealing, mostly, with one big oil company processing the various products in the refinery from the relatively uniform raw material and selling the products through well-defined distribution chains.

So, for SUSFERT the challenge at this juncture is that the bio-based economy has more actors in the value chain due to the need for a much more complex bio-refinery chain.

This complexity arises out of the intricate essence of the sustainable materials that are derived from nature that need to be processed and recovered,” he concludes.

Many of these actors are establishing new relationships as chain reliance is created. At the same time, they must all make a profit, so that everything functions smoothly.

This is the key challenge of European research and innovation funding programmes which is to establish new bio-based value chains that contribute to our climate and environmental goals while stimulating new sectors for employment.

All Photos © Shutterstock


Author: Philippa Webb-Muegge, Consultant, RTDS

Date: 2nd May 2023