- Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017 17:13
The 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 by-products that typically go to waste in mainstream forestry operations. Some of the Bio4Energy scientists—there are more than 220 of them—are developing processes by which to turn such residual streams into energy, high-value specialty chemicals or other bio-based products.
At the core of Bio4Energy are two process platforms. They are Bio4Energy Thermochemical Conversion Technologies and Bio4Energy Biopolymers and Biochemical Conversion Technologies. Researchers on the two research and development (R&D) platforms 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 products. These may be plastics or pharmaceuticals, coatings, liners, adhesives or a number of other things; all based on woody feedstock or organic waste as a raw material.
The research environment Bio4Energy also has a team that studies and develops the woody feedstock. Simply put, researchers on the R&D platform Bio4Energy Feedstock, hosted by Umeå Plant Science Centre, make "better" trees. Since Bio4Energy is based in Scandinavia, a large part of which sits in the boreal belt, the foremost feedstock for the technology processes being developed derives from spruce and pine trees, or residue from industrial processes in which they are used, such as pulping. However, poplar or hybrid aspen trees are also being studied and the question put whether these tree species may be grown successfully on northern latitudes. A part of the Materials and Bioscience branch of the research institute RISE is part of the platform Bio4Energy Feedstock and has developed an encompassing database by which genetic data may be cross-read with data on mechanical characteristics of trees: the Bio4Energy Traits Database.
The R&D platforms Bio4Energy Wood Pre-processing and Bio4Energy Chemical Catalysis and Separation Technologies, for their part, are there to facilitate the journey that the carbohydrate and aromatic content of the biomass must make for it to be 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 platform Bio4Energy System Analysis and Bioeconomy 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. This is Bio4Energy's most recent R&D platform and its members also carry out integrated market analyses and environmental system analyses.
Finally the task of the platform Bio4Energy Environment and Nutrient Recycling 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 programme period of Bio4Energy, 2010-2016, the 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 Bio4Energy's second programme period, 2017-2021, the perspective has been expanded 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 undesirable residues from existing industrial processes. For instance, methods are being developed to convert biomass ashes and sludge into renewable energy, liming materials or low-polluting fertilizers. In some cases, high-temperature processes in combination with filters that capture particulate matter and heavy metals will be used to rid the biorefinery process of 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 the pre-treatment of biomass by roasting (torrefaction), at a BTX Fornax facility. Two other groups have made ample use of Sweden's only demonstration unit for bioethanol production, the Biorefinery Demonstration Plant at Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. Yet others collaborate with Swedish pellet industry, characterising and modulating biomass materials at the Biomass Technology Centre which hosts pilot facilities for the separation and fractionation of biomass at SLU Röbäcksdalen, at Umeå, Sweden. Further north, at Piteå, Bio4Energy researchers are an integral part of a team tasked with trialling, 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. Part of the same industrial site, the RISE Energy Technology Center has facilities for optimising gasification and pyrolysis processes and serves as link between academia and industry.
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 at Umeå. A large number of Sweden-based firms and a handful of innovation and research institutes have signed up to become partners. Of these RISE (groups in the Materials and Bioscience and Bioeconomy branches, respectively) and the ETC Energy Technology Center are founding members of Bio4Energy. RISE Processum and Piteå Science Park, both of which organisations are close to or representing industry, are the Strategic Partners of Bio4Energy. Several other cooperation partners could be mentioned here.
Moreover, scientific collaboration is underway with research organisations or groups in Europe as well as in the U.S.A., Australia, Canada, China, Korea, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa and other countries. The Bio4Energy research programme is committed to the sustainable use of natural resources and aware of the European Union's efforts to combat climate change by lessening the reliance on fossil fuels and increasing 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, Bio4Energy is a member of the European Bio-based Industries' Consortium, which has seen the birth of a Bio-based Industries' Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) as a part of the European Union's Joint Technology Initiatives' process. In Sweden, the programme part of Bio4Energy is a member of BioInnovation—a cross-sectoral programme designed to promote bio-based innovation—and of the Swedish Centre for Renewable Transportation Fuels.
Bio4Energy aims to be a driving force for innovation and thereby the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises. It has set up its own Graduate School on the Innovative Use of Biomass 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. At Umeå University, a new undergraduate training programme was unveiled at the end of 2013 and is designed to train future engineers in Bioresource Technology.
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 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 - and hovering between 235 and 250 members in 2015), originating from a number of countries but affiliated with one or more of Bio4Energy's founding member organisations. In 2009, more than 20 industrial companies pledged their support for the creation of Bio4Energy by signing letters of endorsement.
For more information: See Bio4Energy's Clean-Tech Article (available also from the drop-down menu of the 'Research' heading) or an article in Swedish by Umeå University Information Services. As of June 2015, Bio4Energy has its own news page in Swedish on the Umeå University website and a programme page on the Luleå University of Technology website.
*In November 2017 Bio4Energy had approximately 220 researchers.
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.