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A Biorefinery Research Environment Print E-mail
Sunday, 15 May 2011 17:50

tree_on_globeThe research environment Bio4Energy aims to create highly efficient and environmentally-sound biorefinery processes—including methods and tools for making products such as biofuels, "green" chemicals and new bio-based materials—which draw on biomass sourced from forests or organic waste as a raw material. 

Raw materials, or "feedstock", should be used as completely and as efficiently as possible at all stages of the biorefinery value chain. This is taken to mean from the designing or planting of the first seed for growing a tree, through to the development of consumer products that can be commercialised and add value for their soundness in terms of economic, environmental and social impact. 

Some of the things Bio4Energy aims to do differently are to use all parts of the tree and to recycle or recover byproducts that typically go to waste in mainstream forestry operations. Some of the Bio4Energy scientists—there are more than 230 of them—are developing processes by which to turn such residual streams into energy, high-value specialty chemicals or other bio-based products.

Research organisation

At the core of Bio4Energy are two process platforms. The Bio4Energy Thermochemical and Biochemical Platforms are those who turn out new or improved processes for making advanced biofuels, such as dimethyl ether or second-generation bioethanol; new bio-based materials or "green" chemicals which, in turn, may be used as building blocks in bio-based plastics or pharmaceuticals, coatings, liners, adhesives or a number of other things.

The research environment also has a world-leading grouping which studies and develops the woody feedstock used in Bio4Energy's processes. Simply put, this Bio4Energy Feedstock Platform, hosted by Umeå Plant Science Centre, makes "better" trees. Being based in Scandinavia, a large part of which sits in the boreal belt, the foremost feedstock derives from spruce and pine trees, or residues from processes in which they are used, such as in the pulp and paper industry. However, varieties of poplar or hybrid aspen are also being studied and the question put whether these exotic tree species may be grown successfully on northern latitudes.

The Bio4Energy Pre-treatment and Fractionation Platform, and the Bio4Energy Catalysis and Separation Platform, for their part, are there to facilitate the journey that the energetic content of biomass must make for it to become a suitable for being converted to products, as well as a cost-competitive alternative to petrochemicals. Seemingly small inventions in these platforms may make all the difference in terms of the efficiency of the thermal or biochemical conversion of biomass to fuels or chemicals. The task then of the Bio4Energy Process Integration Platform is to make sure various processes, such as in a biorefinery, function with maximal efficiency in terms of energy use and as a unit. In a biorefinery a number of processes and their stream of primary and side products have to function efficiently together.

Finally the task of the Bio4Energy Environmental Platform is to check and make sure that the methods and tools being developed by the other six platforms have a low or no detrimental impact on the environment, with the aim of 'closing the loop' in terms of only inputting renewable raw materials and limiting noxious emissions to air, ground and water to a strict minimum. In the first operating period of Bio4Energy, 2010-2015, the Environmental Platform's dual foci were placed on system analysis assessing mainly climate change-inducing emissions of bio-based processes, on the one hand, and on limiting organic emissions at source, on the other. In a possible second mandate, 2015-2020, the perspective would expand to encompass resource efficiency along the value chain of biorefinery products and calculating the cost of various options for making sure biorefinery operations are sustainable.

One vision, many partners

A large number of industrial operators have endorsed Bio4Energy and are part of a Bio4Energy Industrial Network. The scientists cooperate with them to develop advanced biofuels, "green" chemicals or other bio-based products, such as new materials made using nanotechnology. Another strand of work focuses on eliminating noxious emission or residues from existing industrial process. For instance, methods are being designed to convert biomass ashes and sludge into renewable energy, liming materials or low-polluting fertilizers. In some cases, high-temperature processes will be used to rid the biorefinery process of heavy metals or toxic organic compounds.

Another promising line of research in Bio4Energy targets the capture and recycling of carbon dioxide (CO2), the international reference for greenhouse gases. New technologies for CO2 capture and reuse that rely on catalytic conversion are being invented. When it comes to development, Bio4Energy researchers have realised inventions which has led to new pilot facilities being installed (just off the campus of the lead organisation Umeå University) for pre-treating biomass by roasting it (torrefaction). Two other groups have made ample use of Sweden's only demonstration unit for bioethanol production, the SP Biorefinery Demo Plant at Örnsköldsvik. Yet others collaborate with Swedish pellet industry, characterising and modulating biomass materials at the Röbäcksdalen pilot facilities at Umeå. Further north, at Piteå, Bio4Energy researchers are an integral part of a team tasked with trialing, perfecting and upscaling production of biofuels made via the gasification route. At the LTU Green Fuels centre, "ultra" low-polluting dimethyl ether (or bioDME) fuel is made from a residual product of the pulping process, black liquor, using entrained-flow gasification technology.

A research 'environment'

Bio4Energy is not only a research programme, but also a research environment. At its core are three Swedish universities recognised as national leaders in education and research on bioenergy, biotechnology and forest management. They are Umeå University, Luleå University of Technology and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. A large number of Sweden-based firms and a handful of innovation and research institutes have signed up to become partners. Of these Innventia and the Energy Technology Centre at Piteå are founding members of Bio4Energy. There is also the SP Technical Institute of Sweden which joined up in 2012. SP Processum and Solander Cleantech, both of which organisations are close to or representing industry, are Strategic Partners of Bio4Energy. Several other partners could be mentioned.

Moreover research collaborations are underway with research organisations or groups in Europe as well as in the U.S.A., Australia, Canada, China, Russia, Taiwan, Japan and other countries. The Bio4Energy research programme is committed to sustainable resource use and aware of the European Union's efforts to combat climate change by lessening the reliance on fossil fuels and boosting the use of renewable energy. In particular, Bio4Energy works to align its practices on advice issued by the European Technology Platforms devoted to forests, plants and biofuels. Since early 2014, it is a member of the European Bio-based Industries' Consortium, which expects to see the birth by May 2014 of a Bio-based Industries' Joint Undertaking as a part of the European Union's Joint Technology Initiatives' process.

Bio4Energy aims to be a driving force for innovation and thereby the creation of small and medium-sized enterprise. It has set up its own graduate school so as to provide post-secondary training for a new generation of academic researchers, to develop scientific expertise in bioenergy, bio-based chemicals and, as a separate strand, biotechnology. In spring 2014, efforts to provide an undergraduate training programme for future engineers of "Bioresource" Technology are set to bear fruit as the programme is unveiled to presumptive students.

Bio4Energy was born in late 2009, when the Swedish government agreed to offer a constellation of 44 mostly Swedish biorefinery researchers its support for developing over five years a Strategic Research Environment, tasked with drawing together some of the best brains in bioenergy and biorefinery research and development, as well as create links and collaboration within the designed academic cluster and cooperation with industrial actors.

The government's generous support, topped up with contributions from the member universities and external funds won as a result of it, have allowed Bio4Energy to expand from the initial 44 to 235 researchers (in March 2014), originating from a number of countries but now affiliated with one or more of Bio4Energy's founding partners. In 2009, more than 20 industrial companies pledged their support for the creation of Bio4Energy by signing letters of endorsement.

For more information: See the Bio4Energy Clean-Tech Article (available also from the drop-down menu of the 'Research' heading) or an article in Swedish by Umeå University Information Services.

Press and media are most welcome to contact Bio4Energy Communications by e-mail to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone at: +46 90 786 52 47 (weekdays).

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Hereunder is the standard sentence which researchers may put towards the end of their scientific articles to acknowledge or thank Bio4Energy for its support:

We thank Bio4Energy, a Strategic Research Environment appointed by the Swedish government, for supporting this work.
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 May 2014 17:32