Breaking the dependence of fossil fuels is one of our time’s greatest challenges. Bioenergy scientists and entrepreneurs in northern Sweden have joined together to develop green technologies for converting forest-sourced biomass into biofuels and other bio-based products. The internationally leading research covers the entire biorefinery value chain—from developing the seeds for robust trees to grow, to producing renewable fuels and other energy carriers. The "green" chemicals produced could also find uses in the pharmaceuticals, clothing and packaging industries.

In 2008 the share of crude oil, petroleum products and solid fuels stood at almost 53.5 per cent of gross inland consumption of primary energy (corresponding to 1,799 million tonnes of oil equivalent) in the 27 European Union member states, according to the EU's statistical body Eurostat. The corresponding share of renewable energy was almost 8.5 per cent, of which 6 per cent was sourced from biomass. This is more than the total share of hydro power, geothermal energy, solar or wind power. Transport accounted for 32 per cent of final energy consumption in the EU 27. 

While the European Union aims to achieve a ten per cent share of biofuels in automotive transport by 2020, the Swedish government has resolved to phase out fossil fuels in transport by 2030. The research programme Bio4Energy is committed to making a contribution towards both goals. However, it is mindful of recommendations by the European Environment Agency (Scientific Committee, 2008) and others who have warned that encouraging large-scale production of biofuels, especially those that are first generation, may compromise the world’s natural capital, including soil, water and biodiversity.

Thus Bio4Energy has made it a top priority not only to develop a greatly efficient biorefinery process with as few and as minor adverse environmental effects as possible, but also to design feedstock that will "perform" with maximal efficiency. That is, Bio4Energy should be designing trees with superior qualities in terms of energy content, ability to withstand pests and changing climatic conditions, as well as malleability in technological processes and logistics. The following is a rendition of some of the things that Bio4Energy does and the context in which it operates.
Northern Sweden possesses vast forest resources. Sweden's forestry industry is successful on the international market. Still, competition on is rife. There is also growing awareness about the impacts of man-made greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels and the need for a more efficient use of natural resources. Thus Europe and the world are increasingly looking to harness renewable alternatives. The offer of Bio4Energy and its partners is to develop technologies that can convert low-cost biomass from forests into high-value products. These can be energy-efficient biofuels and “green” specialty chemicals.

Biorefinery that doesn't pollute

In 2009, Bio4Energy was appointed to develop a research environment in northern Sweden to advance science and technology in the fields of bioenergy and biotechnology using biomass sourced from forests as a raw material. As such this research programme is leading efforts to develop one of Sweden's “strategic areas for research" over a five-year period from 2010 to 2015, based on a €20 million grant from the Swedish government.

Bio4Energy also draws support from its academic and industrial partners. The former include Umeå University, Luleå University of Technology and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. More than 20 industrial companies are part of Bio4Energy. The programme also collaborates with research initiatives such as Funcfiber and it successor Bioimprove – Better Trees for Bioenergy and Material Production, as well as a number of universities and research institutes in Europe, the U.S.A., Australia, Canada, China and Russia.

A chief aim is to deliver methods and tools with which to run highly integrated and efficient biorefinery processes with a minimal negative impact on the natural environment. If granted support beyond a ten-year year period, the Bio4Energy partners aim for their concerted work to make a substantial contribution towards meeting the EU’s climate-change and energy-related goals, according to Bio4Energy Director Stellan Marklund. In addition, with its overarching focus on achieving efficiency throughout the biorefinery value chain, and its bid to produce renewable products which can replace environmentally harmful and energy intensive ones, Bio4Energy also addresses the resource efficiency initiative under Europe’s 2020 flagship strategy. Development of scientific expertise, training of bioenergy scientists and students, and technology transfer of improved biorefinery methods to regions with a lesser technological know-how should be part of that contribution. Plans are being draw up for checking the environmental quality of the work across the seven Bio4Energy platforms. Life-cycle analysis might be used as a first step in this process.

Better trees

forestBio4Energy scientists use biotechnological tools to improve both qualitative and quantitative aspects of biomass sourced from trees. In collaboration with officials from the United States Department of Energy, researchers on the Bio4Energy Feedstock Platform have contributed to mapping the entire genome sequence of the poplar tree species. Then, together with industry, they have helped assembling a collection of 500 transgenic poplar genotypes modified in key genes for growth and wood formation. The data obtained are being used to identify biological tree designs that tend to produce rapid-growth, resilient trees with high-quality biomass. Properties such as the composition of lignocellulosic materials are a point of study. New research will focus on spruce as a model organism. Spruce is the most important tree for the Swedish forest industry in financial terms.

Maximally prepared biomass

Plants and parts of plants contain different functional and structural units. With state-of-the-art technologies well-defined, fractionated biomass is being developed for further upgrading into biofuel pellets and similar products. Torrefication, or “roasting”, is a flexible pre-treatment method that can be applied to biomass. The method is used to turn solid, raw biomass into a dry, hydrophobic and brittle product with high energy density. This makes the transformed biomass easier to transport, store and handle. In addition to developing methods for torrefication, Bio4Energy researchers will also be targeting the ten per cent side stream of gaseous "green" chemicals emitted during the torrefication process which, they believe, might be recovered as energy or as used in other products.

From trees to products

The Bio4Energy scientists use two main technologies for conversion of raw materials into renewable fuels, bio-based electricity and further “bioproducts”. One is the thermal conversion of biomass, which is a technology based on gasification and combustion. It is being used in research projects on gasification of black liquor. A highly efficient technology for recovering this byproduct of pulping operations has been developed and patented. A second key technology draws on biocatalysts and bioprocesses for conversion of raw materials.

At Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, Bio4Energy’s industrial partners are testing new forms biomethanol and bioDME made from tree residues from forestry operations. The research conducted there by Bio4Energy’s industrial partner Chemrec focuses on developing processes for stepping up production to large volumes. Thus it paves the way for scaling up the technology and processes that Bio4Energy helped design so that the output, second-generation biofuels in this case, can be commercialised. A new Swedish Center for Gasification, directed by a scientist on Bio4Energy’s Thermochemical Platform, will be party to the development of that technology (see related Bio4Energy news article).