Biorefining requires multiple expertise, and thus interdisciplinary cooperation. The 7th Framework Program (FP7) BIOCORE aims to demonstrate the industrial feasibility of a biorefinery concept.
Professor Michael O'Donohue, coordinator of BIOCORE and Assistant Director of the Science and Process Engineering of Agricultural Products Research Division of INRA, and Dr. Jean-Luc Dubois, Scientific Advisor, Catalysis and processes, ARKEMA, both France, explain in an interview with Dr. Vera Köster for ChemViews magazine that it is not sufficient to simply generate ideas and technologies if biorefining is to take off. They also talk about what BIOCORE is doing to revolutionize the industrial supply chain.
Michael O'Donohue: BIOCORE was initiated by a core group of researchers who had already worked together on another biorefining project. When building BIOCORE, the desire was to do things differently, really trying to show how a biorefinery can work and avoiding technology hurdles that had already been addressed previously.
Michael O'Donohue: The interest for BIOCORE arose from a long process of research. On a personal basis, I have worked on enzymes that breakdown plant cell walls for many years, and now I am based in an industrial biotechnology institute. Over the years it has become increasingly clear to me that the development of biorefining has not always followed a logical trajectory, because cellulose has been the principal focus of attention even though lignins and hemicelluloses form approximately 50 % of the biomass feedstock.
Michael O'Donohue: I work on enzymes that degrade plant cell walls. Therefore, the link to biorefining is obvious. However, in BIOCORE it is not so obvious, because the initial breakdown of the plant cell walls is performed using organosolv technology. Enzymes are only used afterwards to hydrolyze the cellulose pulp and to treat the soluble pentose sugar fraction. Nevertheless, biomass-acting enzymes or glycoside hydrolases are interesting enzymes, because although they are usually used to breakdown plant cell wall polysaccharides, in certain conditions some of these enzymes can perform a reverse reaction, linking sugar subunits together to make useful compounds such as prebiotics, or linking sugars to other organic molecules, thus making products with surfactant/detergent properties. These latter areas are focuses of research in BIOCORE.
Michael O'Donohue: I am responsible for the scientific coordination of BIOCORE and my colleague, Aurélie Faure, takes care of the administrative side of things. The managerial heart of the project is formed by several workpackage leaders, who are senior scientists from different research organizations or companies. These people take care of the day-to-day business of the research performed in their workpackage.
As a coordinator, my job is to keep the proverbial ball rolling. Part of my duties involve resolving all kinds of problems, such as how to ship one tonne of rice straw from India to France, or how to establish a good level of dialogue between colleagues from different countries, who often have different professional cultures and work in totally different environments.
Michael O'Donohue: I believe that cooperation in BIOCORE is excellent. From the start, everyone has shown a lot of enthusiasm about the project goals. From a concrete point of view, the types of collaboration are different depending on the tasks to be performed. Nevertheless, BIOCORE has a quite linear structure in which one partner's work serves another partner further along the line. This means that the exchange of information and sample is very important. As the project coordinator, I have spent some time trying to perfect this area of collaboration. A good example of cooperation within the BIOCORE project, was the pilot production of bioethanol, performed last year. CIMV, a French company, converted biomass into cellulose pulp using their proprietary technology. After, the cellulose was shipped to another company, DSM, in the Netherlands. DSM used enzymes to breakdown the cellulose into glucose and then performed fermentation to make ethanol. Finally, the ethanol, along with analytical data, was shipped back to the south of France to another company, Arkema, who is working on the production of ethylene, and ultimately PVC, from the bioethanol.
Michael O'Donohue: Success in BIOCORE is measured in many ways. Presently, we have completed a little more than two years of the work program, so the initial fruits of our efforts are only just beginning to be revealed. Nevertheless, a pilot scale production of bio-ethanol has been achieved, using cellulose extracted from wheat straw and several other products and inventions have already emerged.
Notably, lignins have proven to be excellent raw material for the production of resins for wood panels and pilot scale work is now programmed. Also regarding lignins, a Czech partner, Synpo, has devised a new process for using lignins to make plastic material and a patent is currently being filed. Finally, the organosolv technology that is being developed by CIMV has been shown to be quite flexible, since several types of biomass including wheat, rice straw, poplar, and birchwood have been successfully processed, producing in each case cellulose, hemicellulsoes, and lignins.
Michael O'Donohue: Industrial partners were obviously chosen on the basis of competency. This was a vital selection criterium. However, we also chose several industrial partners who possess pilot scale equipment. This is because funding in BIOCORE is insufficient to envisage the construction of pilot facilities. Therefore, it was vital to have these within the partner consortium.
Other partners, notably smaller companies, were chosen for their specific expertise: Compagnie Industrielle de la Matière Végétale (CIMV), Levallois-Perret, France, in organosolv processing and CAPAX, Wolvertem, Belgium, for its knowledge of biomass logistics and purchasing.
Finally, it was important that industrial partners represent the different parts of the biorefinery value chain, from biomass supply through to the marketing of bio-based products. Tarkett, Nanterre, France, a specialist in flooring, represents in BIOCORE a potential user of bio-based plastics.
Jean-Luc Dubois: Arkema is one of the leading European chemical companies, with a wide product portfolio including acrylics, thiochemicals, fluorinated compounds, PMMA, hydrogen peroxide, polyamides, PVDF, and molecular sieves. At the start of the project, Arkema had also a business unit on chlorine chemistry for PVC production. This activity was divested this summer and a new company has been created. KEM ONE, fully integrated in the vinyl sector, will now become a member of BIOCORE to continue our activities in that area. Arkema will remain in the project as we have more interest in the project than only PVC.
Jean-Luc Dubois: At the start of the project, Arkema's PVC related activities meant we were interested to develop a renewable PVC based on non-food sources. We are the final user, but also we have technologies to make the monomers. Our objective is to define the most suitable process combinations to achieve economic production.
In addition, Arkema is also involved in other activities where our products can be used to facilitate biorefining operations. We use our expertise in handling our products to improve biorefining processes.
Michael O'Donohue: As mentioned earlier, several preliminary successes have been achieved. However, the main goal of BIOCORE – i.e., showing how biomass can be converted into a variety of products in a sustainable way – can not be achieved before the end of the project. Therefore, for the moment, I believe that the main achievement of BIOCORE is the successful startup of the project itself. Biorefining, which constitutes a revolution for modern industry, can not be reached over night, and will definitely never be reached by isolated groups of researchers. Therefore, generating strong collaborations and a common European vision is in itself a major achievement.
Michael O'Donohue: Personally, BIOCORE has already impacted on both my personal career and on my institute. From a personal point of view, BIOCORE has been a fantastic accelerator, helping me to better focus my research on biorefining and offering me a much wider vision of this exciting area. With regards to my institute, BIOCORE is the largest biorefinery project that we have been involved in so far. The project was timely, because the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) has since adopted an updated strategic agenda for the years to come and has made some key steps towards consolidating its position in the area of biorefining. Notably, the sustainable use of renewable carbon in the framework of a future bioeconomy figures prominently on INRA's agenda. A new INRA-supported industrial biotechnology infrastructure, Toulouse White Biotech (TWB), has been inaugurated. In short, from now on INRA intends to be a strong player in the game.
Jean-Luc Dubois: To promote high value bio-based chemicals rather than biofuels. The efficient utilization of biomass resources requires the integration of expertise beyond French borders, from crop science, biomass pretreatment, fermentation and enzymatic technologies, to catalysis, and thermochemical conversions areas. But it also needs to take into account life cycle analysis and social and societal impacts in order to develop sustainable products. All this know-how is integrated into collaborative projects like BIOCORE.
Michael O'Donohue: Biorefining requires multiple expertise, and thus involves people with knowledge of plant physiology, industrial engineers and even englobes social sciences. Seeing how all of these areas can come together is absolutely fascinating and extremely gratifying when it works.
Beyond this, I have also been intrigued by my realization that to get biorefining on the road it is insufficient to just create ideas and technologies. Biorefining also requires a general mobilization of a wide variety of stakeholders, from farmers, to public and financial decisionmakers and ultimately, the general public. This is a considerable challenge that is also addressed to some extent in BIOCORE. Also, the notion of sustainability is a very important point in BIOCORE and beyond, because previous experience shows that this can be a big showstopper. However, sustainability is a complex issue that arises from the multiple interconnections that describe modern society. Therefore, correctly assessing sustainability and also weighting risks for society is an enormous issue that needs to be tackled both within and outside of BIOCORE.
Michael O’Donohue is a research director at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), Toulouse, France, working in the Biocatalysis team of LISBP (Laboratoire d’ingenierie des Systèmes Biologiques et Procédés).
He has 20 years' experience in protein biochemistry and engineering areas. Author of over 50 publications, he has worked in several different scientific areas, including bioproducts from biomass for the last 10 years. He is currently deputy head of INRA's engineering department and co-chair of the new Bioeconomy platform within the framework of the KIC Climate Change network.
Jean-Luc Dubois graduated from the Hautes Etudes Industrielles, Lille, France. He did a Voluntary Service Overseas in Saudi Arabia at the KFUPM/RI before obtaining his Ph.D. from the Institut Français du Pétrole (French Institute of Petroleum), Paris. After a post-doctoral stay at the National Chemical Laboratory for Industry, Tsukuba, Japan, he took up a position as a Research Scientist at the R&D Centre of the refining company elf-antar-france (now TOTAL). He moved to the chemical division of the group, elf-atochem (now in-part Arkema), in 1997, and successively stayed in the R&D Centres in Saint-Avold and Pierre-Bénite, both France, where he worked on oxidation catalysts and started several research projects.
Dubois is currently Scientific Director at Arkema, where he is in charge of Corporate R&D linked with Catalysis and Processes. He supervises the long-term projects in this area, and builds the relationships with academic partners and companies for collaborative research. He has been a member of the board of the Catalysis Division of the French Chemical Society and a member of the Comité National of the CNRS. He is the author of 80 publications and 110 patent applications.
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