Students and staff at work at the Biofuels Technology Centre, which are biorefinery pilot facilities at Umeå, Sweden, run by Bio4Energy researchers. Photo by courtesy of Sylvia Larsson.The second edition of the Biorefinery Pilot Research course in Bio4Energy’s own Graduate School has started with a roar, reinforced with interactive lectures on innovation and entrepreneurship in the nascent sector which is biorefinery based on woody raw materials and organic waste.
The course itself is generic to the research environment Bio4Energy and designed to give junior researchers, most of them studying for a PhD, a chance to experience the work at biorefinery pilot and demonstration facilities in northern Sweden. These facilities are at the heart of Sweden-based efforts to develop new or improved types of biofuel and bio-based chemicals.
"During the course we will be looking at [specific] innovation systems: The kind of innovation system which is centred on a specific pilot or demonstration facility and its role and function", she said just ahead of the start of this year’s Biorefinery Pilot Research course 11 November.
While the conference is one of the most respected recurrent events on biomass combustion and gasification research, this year was special a special one for Bio4Energy—and indeed for its offshoot research and development programme Bio4Gasification.
"What is so nice about this is the fact that all our presentations are based on scientific articles which will be published in well-respected journals next year", said Backman, who took over the leadership of the Bio4Energy Thermochemical Platform earlier this year.
So what puts Bio4Energy apart when it comes to having a handle on the quality of biomass-based fuels?
Slide show: Swedish industry representatives and academics at a recent visit to BioEndev Industrial Demonstration Unit for biomass torrefaction being built at Holmsund, Sweden. Partners SP Processum and Bio4Energy organised the visit in connection to a joint seminar. Photos by Bio4Energy.
"Swedish forestry industry needs to transition from traditional production of wood and pulp to a more varied and sustainable production of bio-based products", said Formas first secretary Gia Destouni in a press release announcing the grants, in lieu of justification for the need of the research projects thus enabled.
This is taken to mean that the industry could benefit from a move from pulp and paper making only, to full-scale biorefinery operations in which products as diverse as biofuels, "green" chemicals and specialty acids or the like could be made in one production unit.
Each of the four Bio4Energy research proposals, applied projects expected to result in methods or processes for industry to incorporate in their production within a few years, aim to add one small piece of the puzzle of such a transition:
Efficient conversion of forest biomass insoluble polyesters with potential use in lignocellulosic feedstock biorefineries;
Rapid drying of sludge from forestry industrial operations using vacuum technology;
Large-scale expansion of biorefinery: New value chains, products and the efficient use of woody biomass and;
Selection of elite populations of pine for the sustainable production of new bioenergy and carbohydrate products.
Bio4Energy would like to acknowledge its researchers who contributed a presentation to the Lignin 2014 conference, held 24-28 August at Umeå, Sweden.
Bio4Energy researcher Sandra Winestrand of Umeå University and the Billerud-Korsnäs group.'Smart' packaging designed to prolong the shelf-life of food
Sandra Winestrand and colleagues at Umeå and Karlstad Universities
Edited abstract: Extending the shelf-life of packaged food is a potential way of reducing food waste. One possible way to do this is by using a system that scavenges the oxygen inside a package equipped with an oxygen barrier. A common way to scavenge oxygen inside a package is to insert a small sachet containing iron powder. An alternative to this is to use oxygen-scavenging enzymes that can be incorporated directly in the coating layer of the package.
The phenol-oxidising enzyme laccase uses molecular oxygen as its oxidising substrate, and could therefore be used for the latter type of application. Laccase can use derivatives of lignin as its reducing substrate, which would be interesting from a biorefinery perspective since lignin derivatives are underused co-products in biorefinery based on lignocellulosic feedstock. The aims of the investigation were to understand how the properties of lignin derivatives affected the enzymatic reaction and the quality of the coating layer.
The study involved the use of lignin derivatives and preparations of size-fractionated lignin derivatives from industrial processing of lignocellulose. The molecular properties of the lignin derivatives before and after oxidation by laccase were investigated, as well as the capability of films and coatings to scavenge oxygen. The results indicate that laccase-catalysed cross-linking decreases oxygen levels and improves the water stability of the packaging material.
Art Ragauskas of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, U.S.A., develops polyurethane applications from lignin, together with industrial partners. Photo by Anna Strom.Usually burnt to heat the facilities at pulp and paper-making operations after valuable carbohydrate components such as cellulose have been separated from the woody feedstock—and sometimes cursed for its tendency to stick like glue to the other components of the wood—the polymer lignin, making up almost a third of the wood in trees, has become hot property in research and development (R&D) geared at making bio-based products.
So what’s new, you might wonder. Biorefinery operators such as Borregaard of Norway and Domsjö Fabriker of Sweden have been using lignin for other products than energy for some time, mainly as a component of cement. Carbon fibres have been developed for various applications, for instance by the Swedish research institute Innventia; and there is Borregaard occupying a niche with the way in which it makes vanilla flavouring from the lignin polymer. Still, as biomass researcher John Ralph of the U.S.-based University of Wisconsin-Madison said in a recent interview with Swedish science journalists, "Nothing has come to the top yet as being a winner application" made from lignin.
Part of the reason for that is likely the complexity of lignin—making it hard to break away from the rest of the wood and perhaps even to understand—and its tendency to cling to the carbohydrates cellulose and hemicellulose inside the wood, like a cement holding them together. After all, lignin is what gives plants their sturdiness and allow them to reach their stems towards the sky despite gravity's pulling the other way.
'Zip' ligninUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison professor John Ralph, who is also a researcher at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Center, is the man whose research group has invented a method designed more easily to zip lignin apart. Photo by Anna Strom.
Either way, Ralph should know. On 27 August he presented a Lignin 2014conference with groundbreaking fundamental research on how to alter trees from within, by introducing a modification designed to make its lignin content more malleable (watch a video excerpt of his presentation on http://bio4energy.se). The result would be a tree, say a poplar tree, with additional readily cleavable bonds in a part of its lignin content (in the so-called lignin backbone). The new lignin present in a tree thus modified should be easier to cleave into smaller pieces and to break away from the rest of the wood. Lignin researchers refer to this method, or rather its result, as "zip" lignin.
The Lignin 2014 conference started Sunday 24 August with a 'Get Together' at Umeå, Sweden, at the Umeå University Arts' Campus. Monday 25 August saw several distinguished researchers present including Japanese Noritsugu Terashima of Nagoya University, Niko Geldner of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and—last but not least—Norman Lewis of Washington State University in the U.S.A..
Tuesday 26 August was a day for lignin analysis. Among a number of high-caliber speakers, analytical chemist Wout Boerjan of the University of Gent in Belgium explained how systems biology might be used to understand phenolic metabolism in trees. Others, such as Gerald Tuskan of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S.A., said that rich genomic resources facilitated progress in understanding the way in which wood is formed.