Enabling circular bioeconomies with biomass processing

Sustainable manufacturing from biomass

A growing number of countries now recognise the need to transform manufacturing processes and make them more sustainable: 49 nations have announced national bioeconomy policies, while around 17 have laid out specific strategies to realise their vision.  They all broadly focus on transforming manufacturing processes away from relying on current unsustainable hydrocarbon sources and towards the use of sustainable biomass and biogenic carbon. 

In tropical agricultural economies, biomass is fairly easy to obtain. This is thanks to reliable rains and sunshine, which stimulates rapid vegetative growth in terrestrial and aquatic environments.  In fact, plant growth is so rapid that a significant amount of waste material can build up - especially on farms. Indeed, available biomass from agricultural waste alone amounts to 10-13 billion tonnes globally. Today this is not only generally underutilised in downstream processes but also remains a costly challenge for farmers to deal with and poses health and environmental hazards. But there are a number of challenges in creating, using, and converting biomass (agwaste or other sources) into attractive and usable forms, including: collection and logistics, development of low-energy processing technologies, variability of inputs, post-conversion formulation, and the general issue of taking low value input biomass waste into high value products. 

We’re exploring the creation of ventures that are designed to meet objectives laid out by circular bioeconomy initiatives, while identifying new markets for agriculture and reducing pollution and waste in the sector. We will focus on innovating the technologies associated with biomass and agricultural waste processing, targeting high yield bio-oil, biochar, biogas, and other feedstocks with similar properties. 

A portfolio view of biomass

One of our initial target markets when developing the Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative was the bitumen and road construction market. We had observed that roads in the tropics wear down very easily, and concluded that a bitumen alternative could increase transport efficiency. In considering sources for new road surfaces, we not only found that biobitumen from agwaste would be profitable in countries importing petroleum products for road construction, but that the processing activity to create it also opened the door to the fertilisers and other bio-oil materials markets. We then discovered the benefits of considering biomass as similar to crude oil: a blend of fractions that could be distilled and processed to make many different kinds of products, as a portfolio. 

Armed with this open mindset, we innovated around a diverse set of relevant inputs, processing technologies, production technologies, and applications of biomass-derived materials. The main challenges we faced were the need to reduce the energy-intensivity of these processes and the need to determine exactly what kind of biomass-feedstocks would be appropriate for any given industrial process. 

Overcoming high energy requirements

A common feature of the technologies that convert biomass into bio-oil, biochar, and biogas is that they require a substantial amount of energy and, in some instances, pressure.  Pyrolysis is the high energy slow combustion of input biomass in the absence of oxygen, whereas hydrothermal liquefaction uses high energy processes to convert wet biomass into crude-like oil under moderate temperature and high pressure. Neither of these methods is ideal for on-site biomass conversion that can be useful for industry, and even in centralised facilities, the economics are not particularly attractive. 

Biological approaches could be a better alternative. The most well-known is anaerobic processing, which requires low energy and can happen in ambient temperatures, but is generally slow. We found that non-anaerobic biological digestion is a generally faster, but newer and neglected area, that could also enable higher value outputs. Cell free systems have shown interesting results in experimental settings, in particular for small-scale production of industrially relevant metabolites and pharmaceuticals (the high value compounds we might seek to expand into as an ideal high performance outputs from low performance inputs), but have not yet been used commercially in large scale biomass conversion. A key constraint would be maintaining adequate amounts of enzymes, and building subsystems that could replenish enzymes when they eventually degrade, which could happen more rapidly in the tropics due to temperature shifts. We’re also considering what could be done with a blend of trophic levels by utilising a combination of decomposing plants, animals, fungi and other microbes. Today’s digester systems generally focus on one group of organisms but do not readily integrate multiple trophic levels into a single functioning system. 

Dealing with heterogeneous inputs

While historically there has been a focus on optimising the conversion processes themselves, there have been fewer attempts to change the inputs themselves, before that conversion occurs.  Given that industries tend to require standardised inputs, but biomass quality can vary wildly depending on initial crop source, states of decay, moisture composition or even the particular farm it is sourced from, pre-processing could be a useful way to bring these two gaps together as a solution. 

Prepping inputs could reduce the need for optimization and homogenisation of inputs from different sources, making the process more predictable and potentially less energy-intensive. For example, using enzymes to break down polymers and chemicals that may serve as desiccants would tackle higher energy requirements pre liquefaction. Not only could this apply to classical conversion technologies, but such pre-processing principles could also be applied to novel biological and cell-free processes.

Alternatively, more fine-tuned control of processing parameters could be explored. Converting highly variable biomass from different sources into useful outputs is effectively an optimization experiment. We see room to develop a platform that can take a sample from any input and automatically set the process, or determine an input priming or prepping strategy that can be easily applied further up the supply chain, well before the material arrives at a processing plant. Essentially this means that transport and processing steps could occur simultaneously, helping to improve efficiency via active logistical conversion.

However, variability also applies to market and seasonal conditions - not all sources of biomass will be online and available at all times. Thankfully there is an enormous amount of economically-relevant hydrocarbons and biomass sources which could be mutually swapped out, but determining which ones are available in commercially relevant amounts is a major challenge. 

To this end we envisage a dynamic intelligence platform - one that could cross-reference market prices and requirements for particular biogenic carbon and hydrocarbon fractions, and predict seasonal availability of different biomass sources. This could prove useful in assigning priority to processing, sourcing and determining which revenue opportunity should be pursued for a given biomass source. To create a resilient bioeconomy, this platform that could take a systems-level view of the most relevant biomass conversion processes for a particular market need, such that pre-processing steps could be implemented and distributed through a chain of providers, to ensure the output comes in on time to meet rising market demand. 

Create ventures with us

This opportunity area will be part of our Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative based in Costa Rica, and will be supported by the Biomaterials Hub being built at the Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE). 

Costa Rica not only offers a growing ecosystem around biomaterials but it has also placed heavy emphasis on superior use of local biomass as a feedstock and on reducing dependence on crude oil-derived products. It also offers a deeply conducive research environment: a significant amount of biomass is available as waste in the country and could be collected to support extensive research across many different biomass inputs and biomes, exploring solutions in product and process chemistry that could be scaled to commercial markets elsewhere and support identification of additional feedstock and opportunities for circularity.

If this is an area of interest to you and you have experience with biomaterials or chemical engineering, we want to hear from you! More details on the specifics of this role can be found in this job description.

More details on the Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative can be found here.