In a possible new round of Bio4Energy, which research environment so far has been granted funding for the years 2010-2015, research to develop bio-based materials for specific industrial applications is likely to get a more prominent role.
While, thus far, one of Bio4Energy's groups at the Luleå University of Technology (LTU) in Sweden has developed a composite material being upscaled for use in water purification applications, others are looking into what might be made out of the tree polymer lignin. Yet others work to turn cellulose derivatives into textiles or similar products.
Also, recently, a Bio4Energy PI working to rid thermal biomass conversion processes of polluting emissions, launched a new initiative to create "smart" materials with a low environmental impact from low-value waste fractions of biomass.
"There has been much interest taken in creating applications for polymer-based materials, but these have not always turned out to be sustainable. Here we want to create materials which help close the loop in terms of a product’s impact on the environment.
"It’s about [designing] smart environmental applications that we can use in thermal processes [such as] torrefaction or pyrolysis", Jansson said.
The new materials might be used to trap undesirable elements as a part of a water purification device, of soil amendment or carbon capture, she added.
Seeking value-added products in biomass-based waste
Jansson’s new research appears to be very much in line with what is said to be one of the nascent biorefinery sector's next challenges, seen from a Swedish perspective. Just this week, the Swedish Energy Agency, which reports to the government, announced a new round of "innovation" funding, in which the agency singled out "strategic research on new bio-based materials, products and services" as one of five priority areas for R&D.
"The objective is a transition from a fossil [oil]-based to bio-based society and that Sweden will have completed the transition to a bioeconomy in the first half of the 22nd century", the agency said in a press release.
The same day a new national BioInnovation initiative—of which Bio4Energy is a founding member—announced that VINNOVA, another state-run agency, had agreed to contribute up to 50 million Swedish kroner (SEK) annually, to be matched by funds contributed by the 58 BioInnovation members from the forestry and bio-based industries, academia and research institutes.
"The programme [BioInnovation] shows that public funds can support actors... to bridge traditions, borders and structures, and to establish cooperation and spur development.... Expected effects are new innovations which [may be turned into] bio-based materials, products and services that give Swedish companies a competitive edge internationally and increase the value of exports for Sweden", a press release from BioInnovation said (Editor's translation from Swedish).
BioInnovation was set afoot last year through a series of meetings coordinated by the Swedish Forest Industries' Federation trade body.
Although Jansson, for her part, has only just started Bio4Energy's new line of research of turning biomass waste fractions into value-added products, her efforts have not gone unnoticed. This month she and her close family travelled to Stockholm, the Swedish capital, to receive an award from the hand of the Swedish King. Jansson clinched the SEK85,000 award from the Carl XVI Gustaf 50-year Fund for Science, Technology and Environment for her research on the "conversion of organic waste to smart materials", to "be used to increase cooperation with researchers in other countries", a letter from the Royal Court said, signed by the fund secretary, Birgit Erngren Wholin.
"I am surprised but very happy. Happy and proud", Jansson said at the announcement of the award.
She said research results might be upscaled at a new Environmental Technology Centre (MTC) which is being planned for construction at an Umeå combined heat and power facility, known locally as "Dåva", which will have facilities for experimental testing. Balticgruppen, a local property owner specialising in housing for students and special populations, is said to be financing construction of the MTC.
Thumbs up from Bio4Energy's material development lead
"It’s not really similar to what we do [in my research group]. We produce new materials by separating cellulose from biomass and adding it to another material to make a composite. By doing so we take the process a step further", professor Oksman said;
"But in general I think Bio4Energy is doing very well to look at other applications for biomass than energy… We should not just be making fuels, but also products value-added products".
Bio4Energy is recruiting a PhD student to work on the Smart Materials project led by Stina Jansson of Umeå University. For more information, please see the Bio4Energy Open Positions' page or click on this link.
Stina Jansson has a blog at the Umeå University website, where she discussed the fate of waste 13 August 2013.