This month Bio4Energy researchers will meet at Lövånger, between the northern Swedish towns of Umeå and Skellefteå, to flesh the out the research programme’s vision with further concrete goals and projects for the next five years. A further aim of the 2-3 May meeting is to develop cross-cutting projects between B4E’s seven platforms, each of which is responsible for conducting research to advance scientific research on a certain segment in the biorefinery value chain.
The projects will be at the root of developing collaborations with forestry industry to design efficient process for developing fuels and products from biomass, such as wood and woody refuse.
While the term “biorefinery” has commonly been used to describe a factory in which bioproducts such as fuels and chemicals are produced from renewable materials, generally from plants, here the term is used in a more generic sense. That is, as a reference to the entire process, or “technology”, of developing biofuels for automotive transport and specialty chemicals from woody biomass, from “seed to advanced fuels and fine chemicals”, according to B4E founding documents.
They say that B4E will develop methods and a “tool box” that cover the biorefinery process, designed to guide industry in inventing new products and improving existing ones. In addition, B4E researchers aim to develop methods for eliminating environmentally-damaging waste streams, turning them into energy that can be used to power industrial processes. This way of re-using energy from industrial processes is being referred to as “energy combine”.By paving the way for large-scale manufacture of non-fossil fuel based products, B4E activities are expected to contribute not only to avoid emissions of climate-change inducing greenhouse gases, but also serve to make industrial process more energy efficient. Both of these are chief objectives of European Union strategies for countering climate change and boosting resource efficiency in its territory and beyond.
Cooperation with industry
In addition, B4E aims to serve as a hub for innovation within its field, encouraging the start up of new business ventures, particularly of small and medium-sized enterprises, and as an instigator of academic training for students in bioenergy.
In the B4E research environment—which includes three leading Swedish universities on forestry issues, research institutes and industrial companies—the focus on innovation is not just for show. The B4E scientists have the skills to perform the highly technical research. But they need to take cues from industry on which avenues to pursue.
These need to be technically feasible while, at the same time, correspond to economic and environmental imperatives, as well as tally with the aims of the northernly Swedish region in which they are being produced. Without the cooperation with industry, some B4E scientists have suggested, they would be digging around in the dark.
For instance, B4E forestry industry partners in northern Sweden have developed a diesel fuel from pine tree oil that emits 95 per cent less carbon dioxide when used to power heavy goods vehicles, compared with standard fossil-oil based diesel available at European pump stations.
When “fully converted” this dimethyl ether fuel, produced by gasifying black liquor, a spill product of forestry operations, could be offered in quantities sufficient to fuel half of HGV transportation in Sweden, according to Johan Hedin, a project manager at the Solander Science Park in Piteå where the DME fuel was developed.
The scientists at the pilot plant are also testing a new pellets gasifier, which has been designed to deliver district heating to small-scale local communities, such as a “medium-sized” apartment block with attached service institutions.The fuel pellets will be produced from renewable sources such as woody biomass, or in the case of a prospective Asian buyer, left over rice shells from making white rice, researchers at science park told a group of visitors in March.
Great challenges ahead
However, great challenges lie ahead for B4E, which cut the red ribbon of its operations only 1 January 2010, at the Swedish government’s announcement of B4E as a provider of national “strategic research”.
To attempt to meet those challenges, B4E will keep working to refine its strategy for developing the research environment. Its leadership aims for the 2-3 May meeting at Lövånger to mark a decisive step in this direction.
While the first year was spent setting up operations, the time had come to connect researchers and initiatives across platforms, said B4E Director Stellan Marklund. Thus B4E would start building the “toolbox” that would serve to guide industry in improving and inventing bioproducts from woody biomass.
“We are past the up-start period and going into the production [of scientific results]”, said Dr. Marklund;
“It is important that we keep stimulating each other [and discuss] new ideas, in view of producing results on various research issues.”