From aspiration to profitability: producing biochemicals by biorefinery

23 Nov 2020

From aspiration to profitability: producing biochemicals by biorefinery

Biorefining is a critical pillar of the growing bioeconomy and involves converting biomass into diverse bio-based products and components for use across diverse sectors, including the chemical industry. By leveraging renewable resources, industry, including the growing bio-based chemicals segment, is lowering its CO2 footprint by developing new innovations that reduce fossil feedstock usage.

Through biorefining, biomass is turned into valuable products and components, used widely today across the food, feed, bioenergy and chemical industries. The most common feedstocks from which biomass is derived, are:

  • plants
  • microorganisms
  • organic waste
  • fungi

Because these feedstocks are regenerative, meaning they are replenished relatively quickly, they typically fall under the category of renewable resources. First-generation feedstock includes sugars and vegetable oils found in crops, such as sugar cane, corn or canola (i.e. rape seed). Diverting these crop resources for uses other than food production is widely debated. For this reason, there is increasing demand and pressure put on manufacturers to use second-generation feedstocks, such as waste streams from food production, the wood industry, lignocellulosic biomass or woody crops, agricultural residues or waste, or dedicated non-food energy crops grown on marginal land unsuitable for food production.

The biorefinery process

The biorefinery process includes upstream and pre-treatment phases, a fermentation step and then downstream processes to mechanically or thermally isolate oils, fats, lignocellulose, proteins, starches and sugars, for use in food, feed, biofuels bioplastics and as building blocks for chemicals and biochemicals. Producing chemical building blocks, requires fractionating feedstocks into intermediates, such as carbohydrates, various proteins or triglycerides, which are then further converted into value-added bio-based fine and conventional chemicals.

GEA bio-based intermediates

Biorefining involves processing diverse biomass resources to isolate key components and chemicals for use across diverse industries, reducing industry’s CO2 footprint and reliance on fossil feedstocks.

The bioeconomy: Where are we now?

In the past, pursuing a bioeconomy was viewed almost exclusively as a benchmark and aspiration for the agricultural sector. Today, however, its importance is understood much more holistically, and it is widely agreed that an economy based on the sustainable use of renewable biological resources, which includes waste, is the necessary strategy for all sectors. Industry, with its many applications, is therefore under extreme pressure to improve the sustainability of its processes and products which it creates for both consumer and B2B markets. Therefore, biorefining, including the production of biobased chemicals from renewable resources, plays an important role.

Traditionally, nearly all basic chemicals have been produced from crude oil, or liquid fossil fuel, forming the building blocks in the plastics, colorants, fertilizers, and many other types of products that we’ve depended on for decades. Further implementing the bioeconomy through bio-based chemicals or “white biotech” requires entrepreneurial effort and investment, which is heavily impacted by the low price of crude oil. This trend creates barriers to developing scalable models for using renewable feedstocks, which affects pricing and competitiveness. Likewise, many investors want to see proof of concept as well as demonstration plants to prove scalability. 

Regulations too, although valuable and important for protecting consumers, can make obtaining government approvals – especially where novel foods or ingredients are involved – both difficult and expensive. As a result, much of the bioeconomy is still subsidy-driven or remains underdeveloped. And despite stepped up R&D in the chemical industry over the last 10-15 years, the production of basic- and platform chemicals made from renewable raw materials has also remained largely uncompetitive. 

That said, the biochemical industry has found ways to overcome some of these challenges by forming enterprises focused on select value chains, filling niches in cosmetics or specialty chemicals and adhesives or developing building blocks that can be sold on for use in other products. Overall, replacing petrochemical products with renewable raw materials has become profitable when used as a basis for making products of higher economic value. 

The impressive growth in this sector is linked to several key trends: 

  • Increased focus among industry leaders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by pursuing circular economies utilizing CO2-neutral feedstocks 
  • Increased commercial viability of bio-based chemical, some of which deliver additional functionalities or better performance compared to fossil oil-based alternatives
  • Greater economic independence from traditional oil-producing countries & oil price combined with strong tendency towards “green energy”
GEA’s biorefinery credentials and contribution to the bioeconomy

GEA solutions and biorefinery experience covers nearly every type of renewable resource and industry application, including the efficient production of biofuels and stillage processing, biopolymers and bioplastics, as well as components and ingredients for the food and feed industries. We’ve partnered with customers and diverse consortia to establish and test biorefinery models for: producing acids from renewable feedstocks to be used as building blocks in bioplastics, for example; leveraging microalgae for use in biopesticides and feed; producing rubber extracted from dandelions, protein from insects and waste streams from food production, and much more. Our customers benefit from GEA’s network of professionally staffed test centers, laboratory facilities and pilot plants, which enable us to support them as they progress and make the shift to industrial production. 

GEA competence and solutions for the bio-based chemical industry cover aspects of fermentation and key downstream processes, including: 

  • biomass separation via centrifuge or membrane filtration 
  • product isolation and purification via distillation, melt crystallization or membrane filtration
  • concentration through evaporation
  • crystallization & drying of final product
  • concentration & drying of byproducts

GEA currently supplies decanters, separators, evaporators and fluid bed dryers for biorefining factories of several key industrial partners for the production of next-generation biochemicals. Raw materials for this green production are sourced mainly from solid woods from sustainably managed forests, wood waste, thinnings and industrial beechwood (normally incinerated) as well as residues from regional sawmills. GEA also supports customers in the production of bioenergy and biofuels, which are generated from industrial sugars and residue side streams.

In 2019, GEA supported a global Norwegian biochemicals leader in the installation of a new plant for producing lignin, an organic polymer found in trees, plants and some algae. Lignin and ligninsulfonates are used in concrete admixtures, fertilizers, industrial binders, oil field chemicals and a range of other applications. The new turnkey plant for spray drying supports downstream processes, which includes a new silo for feeding stored powder materials into the packaging system and a large wet scrubber for dust removal. GEA’s advanced scrubber technology enables the recovery of valuable substances and the scrubbing liquid is returned to the spray drier as process water, increasing the total product yield and reducing freshwater withdrawal.

A French biotechnology company, launched as a start-up, is now scaling up to industrial production with support from GEA. Chosen for our strong test center capabilities, extensive experience and reputation for reliability, we’re helping them take waste from sugar beet production to make a range of new, high value-added molecules via a patented fermentation process. These acids will form the building blocks for chemical products used in the food, pharma, cosmetic, chemical and agronomy industries. The new GEA concentration and distillation plant, especially designed for fermented products based on cellulose, will come online in 2021.

GEA biorefinery biochemical sugar beet
GEA test center

GEA: shaping the future of the biochemical industry

GEA also delivered a membrane filtration plant to the Bioprocess Pilot Facility (BPF) in the Netherlands – now in operation for several years. The BPF runs pilot scale tests to confirm, and where necessary modify, proof of concept for customers looking to scale up bio-based product production in the biofuels, food and fine chemicals industries. Likewise, GEA provides customers with access to its own test centers and laboratories, supporting them during process development up to scaling up their own biorefinery plants.

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