NC Partnering Newsletter 9/2016
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NC PartneringShaping the Biofuture

Value creation through
biochemistry II

A Second Interview with Dr Thomas J Farmer –  University of York

Because of the great response Dr Farmer’s interview in our August Newsletter generated, we are delighted to bring you a second instalment of his thinking around the rapidly evolving biochemistry sector. In this part, we ask him to address the measurability of how effectively a specific biochemical is derived from its respective components and at what cost in energy. The BUE seems a credible solution, but we also press for a stand on how EU regulators are contributing or hindering the development of truly useful biochemical products.

NC: How has the BUE (Biomass Utilisation Efficiency) been developed? How is it defined? Will it become a generally accepted standard for measuring the economic viability of biomass based products?

TF: The Van Krevelen diagram is not the only tool we use in assessing our chosen routes because it fails to consider processes where carbon is lost. Going back to our example in the typical production of ethanol from glucose 1 unit of glucose (6 carbons) produces 2 units of ethanol (4 carbons in total) and 2 units of carbon dioxide (2 carbons in total), but our Van Krevelen plot fails to consider this lost units of carbon via the carbon dioxide (Figure 5).
Figure 5: From glucose to bio-based ethene
Figure 5: From glucose to bio-based ethene

To address this we worked with the NOVA institute in Germany to establish a better way of calculating the effective conversion of a biomass feedstocks into the desired final product.  We call this the Biomass Utilisation Efficiency, or BUE [3]. With BUE we apply a simple calculation that compares the total mass of the elements in the final product that are from the biomass feedstock versus that contributed via other reactants.

Figure 6: Definition of Biomass Utilisation Efficiency (BUE)
Figure 6: Definition of Biomass Utilisation Efficiency (BUE)

So for the glucose to ethene example, the BUE calculation would highlight that two carbon atoms from the feedstock are lost via carbon dioxide.

Figure 7: BUEs for bio-based ethene
Figure 7: BUEs for bio-based ethene

Because the BUE calculation only needs the reaction schemes for your process, and in some cases a little chemistry knowledge in knowing which atoms go where in a reaction, it is metric that can be used quickly to assess any given chemical reaction involving a bio-derived feedstock. Because of its simplicity I would expect that it would be generally accepted as a standard metric to assess any bio-based chemical synthesis. Anyone with a business mind would appreciate that keeping as much of the mass of your feedstock in your final product is one key aspect of improving the economic viability of a process, and BUE achieves this in a simple way. For the hard-core green chemists our there the NOVA team took this approach even further and also showed how BUE can be expanded to consider the yield and selectivity of any given reaction. I would advise that those interested take a closer look at the BUE paper in full [3].  

NC: How do see the EU regulatory framework? Does it encourage biochemical and biomaterials development? What would be your suggestion to enhance bio-based material evolvement?

TF: EU regulatory framework is indeed vital for supporting that bio-based chemical industry as it continues to grow. Our research group has already been involved in projects funded by European Commission to help support the EU bio-based economy through the development of standards, certification and labelling for bio-based products (Open-Bio and KBBPPS) [4,5]. If bio-based products can use certification and labelling to set them apart from non-renewable petroleum-derived rivals then there is opportunity for these products to offer a unique selling point to discerning consumers. The projects we have been involved in clearly indicate that the European Commission takes the role of bio-based products within Europe very seriously and is making wise choices in how best to support it. I also feel that the European Commission is really trying to take the lead in global regulations and standards to assist bio-based products, and their efforts here should continue. However, in reference to my earlier comment about the difference with the UK and Scandinavia in the source of its biomass, this is again a situation where what is ideal for one member state isn’t the same as for another, so the EU regulatory framework will struggle if it takes a one-size-fits-all viewpoint, and must instead be more intelligent in how its regulations are set out. We do not want to stifle the progress being made in Scandinavia on using their abundant and sustainable wood resources, when for the UK a better focus is on using waste as a resource.

I have seen that over the last five years many great advances have been made in the field of bio-based products, and in many cases were the results of national and international funding being used to bring industry and academia together. My one suggestion is that this effort is increased further, as this combination of academia and industry (both small and large companies) is the best way to help these exciting advances in bio-based chemicals and materials progress from the lab right through to products on the shelf.

[1] J.W. Frost, Redefining chemical manufacture, Industrial Biotechnology, 2005, 1(1): 23-25
[2] J. Marshall, Biorefineries: Curing our addiction to oil, New Scientist, 2007, 2611, 28-31
[3] K. Iffland, J. Sherwood, M. Carus, A. Raschka, T. Farmer, J. Clark, Definition, Calculation and comparison of the “Biomass Utilization Efficiency (BUE)” of various bio-based chemicals, polymers and fuels, nova paper #8 on bio-based economy, 2015

New service offered by NC Partnering: Bio-ecosystems

New bio-products and their associated technological research face many practical obstacles. Our approach is to construct a bio-ecosystem, into which different but still mutually complementary operators fit and benefit from the material as well as immaterial by-products of each other. Too often bio-product development focuses on primary biomass as raw material, with connected high costs an obstacle to viability. The bio-ecosystem creates a raw material synergy base of secondary – even tertiary – biomass elements, which can reduce costs decisively. Such systems are well known in the traditional hi-tech sector, and NC Partnering is successfully pioneering their role in forest based biomass utilisation.

Associated partner introduction – Dr. Martti Launonen

Dr Martti LaunonenDr. Launonen is a leading expert in the development of innovation, and science and technology environments, based on company interests  as well as national and regional policies. He has worked with companies, technology centers, business incubators, city officials and ministries around the globe in over 200 cases (USA, UK, France, Japan, Canada, France, Russia, South-Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Poland, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Brasil, Namibia, Egypt, Thailand, China and Hong Kong)

In 2011 he published his book “Hubconcepts™ – The Global Best Practice for Managing Innovation Ecosystems and Hubs”, in which he analyzed the success parameters of science and technology parks, regional innovation ecosystems and innovation collaboration based on case studies in Asia, Europe and North America 2008–2010.

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