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Biomass has great potential if used properly

Biotechnology is constantly expanding its fields of application. Up until now, biotechnology has mainly been focused on the production of enzymes, basic chemical and pharmaceutical substances as well as other biobased molecules. From now on, efforts will be made to exploit the potential of biotechnology at the beginning of value creation chains by improving the access to regenerative resources. Apart from its potential for use as food and animal feed, there are two more concepts that focus on the utilisation of biomass – the material and energetic use of biomass. The problem is that these two concepts are in competition with each other.

Biotechnological processing of raw materials used to mean the production of nutrients for cells, fungi and bacteria that would then proliferate in great quantities in bioreactors, carrying out biochemical reactions. The cellular helpers need to be well fed so that they produce a high enough product yield. Now, the term “raw material” is starting to take on another meaning for biotechnologists. It is envisaged that biotechnology will make increasing contributions to our ability to more efficiently use biomass, which is without a doubt the largest raw material pool available for industrial processes.

Factor C – the bridge to the fossil materials world

Wood is currently the most important biomass available. Wood can be used to produce furniture, construction material and many other things, but can also be used for the production of energy. © vispix.com

Every year, water and land plants produce around 120 to 150 billion t of dry biomass in a process known as photosynthesis. The biochemical basis of these huge amounts of biomass is long or branched molecules consisting of carbon, C for short. When combined with hydrogen, oxygen or nitrogen, plants and unicellular organisms turn carbon into hydrocarbons such as alcohols, carboxylic acids, fats and oils. In addition, plants also form complex structural molecules such as cellulose and lignin as well as storage substances such as starch. These carbon-rich molecules are the link between biomass and fossil fuels and many plastics, which are also composed of hydrocarbon chains of varying length.

Many compounds that are produced by plants can be used for technical purposes: for example, oils, fibres, proteins, pigments can be used as basic chemicals, construction materials, insulation materials, binding agents, dyes, additives and much more. The use of biomass for the production of a variety of substances and materials covers a remarkable range of applications. In addition, biomass is also used for the production of energy. Wood has served as a combustible for thousands of years, but biomass is also a popular starting material for industrial synthesis processes used to produce liquid fuels.

Biomass – more than wood and straw

BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg conceptualises the term “regenerative raw materials” in a very broad way. Biomass is not only wood, straw, grass and biological waste. It is not only produced in traditional agricultural and silvicultural processes, but also using biotechnology. At present, bioreactors are mainly used to synthesise pharmaceutically active substances, basic chemicals and enzymes, but it is envisaged that specific bioreactors will in future also be used to exclusively produce biomass without exclusively being directed towards the production of biomolecules.

Carbon dioxide fixing organisms are of particular importance as they can be used to establish sustained substance cycles in which nature assembles macromolecules, which in turn are used by humans for the production of a broad range of materials and energy. Algae are regarded as the most important biomass producers of the future. They carry out photosynthesis, take up carbon dioxide and synthesise complex compounds. However, the mass cultivation of algae has special requirements that can at present not be met by existing production plants. Although algal biotechnology is still a young branch of biotechnology, researchers in this area are working hard to come up with solutions.

Competition weakens business

Biomass can lead to conflict: corn is the basic food for many people, but also the provider of starch used for the production of bioenergy. © i-bio Information Biowissenschaften

Biomass is not only an energy source or material, but is often also used as food or animal feed. At first sight, this broad range of applications seems very attractive - biomass as a kind of all-purpose tool that can be used for many different purposes. However, when one takes a second look, the opportunities arising from this versatility seem to dwindle. The different areas of application cannot exist side by side, but instead are in competition with each other. The "food versus fuel" controversy has been raging for quite a while, i.e. the competition between biomass as food and as the basis for producing biofuel. A major argument is that energy-crop programmes compete with food crops. As the example of Mexico shows, the price of corn, a staple food for many Mexicans, has risen dramatically due to the fact that the American biofuel industry is swallowing up agricultural resources.

Energy is currently the preferred use of biomass

Another conflict of biomass energy is its competition with biomass materials. According to a recent report published by the nova-Institut in Cologne, Germany (“Reassessment of the material use of regenerative resources”; June 2010; see link in the top right-hand corner), German industry used around 90.6 million t of regenerative resources (with the exception of straw) for the production of materials and energy in 2007. The quantity of biomass used for the production of “energy” and “materials” was fairly similar: 53 per cent of biomass was used for the production of energy and around 47 per cent for the production of materials.

However, appearances are deceptive since the percentage somewhat inaccurately reflects the true distribution of the use of biomass. The high percentage attributed to the material use of biomass is mainly due to the very heavy use of wood, especially for construction purposes. This therefore creates a major imbalance in the figures. If the use of regenerative resources is calculated for the agricultural sector alone, without taking into account the silvicultural sector, the percentage of the material use of biomass drops to a meagre 26 per cent. Agriculture is mainly focused on the energetic use of plants, which is in line with the funding instruments provided by the government.

Another effect of both Germany and the EU’s bioenergy-friendly subsidy policy is that the agricultural area used for the cultivation of energy crops has increased around 10-fold since 2000 (to about 1.8 million ha). The areas used for the cultivation of crops for food and materials have remained at around 300,000 ha, not least due to the fact that there are no financial incentives for the production of biomass materials. According to analyses carried out by the nova-Institut, an agricultural area of two to three million ha can be used for the cultivation of renewable resources without this conflicting with the cultivation of crops used for food and feed production. However, there is no surplus land; the contrary is the case in Germany. The nova-Institut predicts that under favourable conditions (appropriate funding, rising oil prices), the area required for the production of biomass materials might increase to 1.8 million ha up to 2010. We are therefore well advised to efficiently use existing areas, which means to more effectively support the production of biomass materials.

Looking at the biomass programmes of the German federal and state governments it becomes clear that politicians favour the energetic use of biomass. On the other hand, experts believe that the use of biomass for the production of material and food has a far higher value creation potential. The nova-Institut analysts believe that the material use of biomass has a value creation power of up to nine times higher than the energetic usage of biomass.

Well thought-through cascades

There is no simple way out of the dilemma arising from the use of biomass as energy, material, food and feed. The application areas compete for a worldwide agricultural area of around 1.5 billion ha and an area of around four billion ha of forest. The future use of these areas will have a decisive influence on further development. It must be borne in mind that the agricultural areas are an extremely limited resource and biomass is a recyclable resource. In the medium term, all biomass users will have to develop well coordinated and efficient usage concepts and intelligent technological approaches as well as engaging in more extensive networking. The most efficient method is the usage of cascades, in which the material use of biomass is given priority over the energetic use.

Modern methods broaden biomass usage

Modern material usage of biomass: Engine fan with frame connector, made of biobased polyamide Nylon-5,10. © BIOPRO/Bächtle

First-generation fuels, which are either based on plant oils or sugar-containing storage substances such as starch, only fulfil requirements to a limited degree because they compete with food and feed for the same biogenic resources. They must be seen as a temporary solution only. It is far more important to promote and fund technologies such as the Bioliq® process developed by researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. This method can be used to process virtually any type of biomass and convert it into biofuel. The basis of the method is the Fischer Tropsch synthesis, a method for which a patent was filed way back in 1925. However, another newer method that is used to break up and use tough biomass is also suitable for biomaterials that are already used for the production of materials. This method maintains the long-chain carbon compounds in the material use of biomass.

An example from Baden-Württemberg illustrates the modern material use of biomass. The company TECNARO based in Ilsfeld-Auenstein has developed a method that enables the production of a plastics-like material from lignin and natural fibres - ARBOFORM. This biobased thermoplastic material can be processed using pressure moulding, it is biologically degradable and has already convinced several industrial sectors. ARBOFORM is currently being used in car parts, instruments and shoes. TECNARO has since placed two more renewable resource-based materials (ARBOFILL and ARBOBLEND) on the market.

Solving problems in networks

Biotechnology has a major role to play when it comes to efficiently producing and using biomass. Biotechnology gives access to biological producers such as microorganisms, plants and algae, it is closely linked with the metabolism-based production and degradation pathways of biomolecules and can develop and implement industrial processes for the production and use of biomass. Biotechnology offers the entire knowledge spectrum, both basic and detailed, that is required to establish and facilitate access to biomass.

It will be necessary for biotechnology, chemistry, material sciences, energy technology, process engineering and many other science and technology areas to work closely together to develop efficient usage strategies that can reduce the conflict between current biomass usage concepts.

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