Novozymes: sugar will become the new oil

Novozymes envisages new biorefineries which can process any biobased feedstock into any desired product in a sustainable way. They will be able to process straw, municipal waste, pig farm or dairy waste etc. As outputs, they see ethanol, food, feed, chemicals. Sugar will be the intermediate for most products. Sugar will become the new oil. Says Lars Hansen, Novozymes President Region Europe.

Current oil/chemical refineries are huge industrial complexes, concentrated in specific areas. Biorefineries will not be as large and will have to be spread across Europe, close to where the biomass is. Still, these biorefineries will need an investment of € 100-200 million for the first processing step. Novozymes envisages biorefineries to be relatively large industrial complexes (‘meaning this is not something you can do in your backyard as they will employ around 100-200 people’), but they will be decentralised and located in rural areas.

Rural development
‘The biobased economy will give an incentive to rural development,’ says Lars Hansen. ‘While research will take place in bigger units, processing of raw materials will always be regional, as raw biomass cannot economically be transported along distances > 50 km. In order to facilitate transport along larger distances, we need pre-treatment, e.g. pelletization. By default, jobs in the biobased economy will be regional. Which will make a great difference compared to the fossil fuel economy, which concentrates in large industrial complexes.’

The lignin fraction is the tricky side. Biorefineries need an energy source to fuel the process, and lignin is most suited for that. We could go on to separate lignin into aromatic components, but that involves difficult chemistry, and it would mean that we need another fuel for our factories. The main course of Novozymes research on biomass processing is turning into sugars as much biomass as possible. Most of the technology needed for that, is already available.

Ongoing research
Processing hemicellulose still is the subject of ongoing research. Some companies look for fermentation of hemicelluloses into ethanol. Some simply break it down to C5 sugars, used in animal feed. Others produce biogas from it. It all exemplifies the beauty of the biorefinery concept: being able to use different inputs, to produce a whole array of outputs. At Novozymes, they think that this concept might be working full scale in about twenty years.

‘There is no real distinction in this concept between the energy and the chemicals market: biorefineries produce both fuels and chemicals,’ says Lars Hansen. ‘The chemical industry sees opportunities in this field, which stem from technology development and green arguments. Biochemicals are very competitive already; the problem is the uncertainty about fossil fuel prices.’

A big potential
‘Prices of agricultural products are volatile as well, but the biobased economy will stimulate use of side products and double cropping. There is no price for those products when there is no demand. On the other hand, farmers will produce them when there is a stable demand for them. Farmers are the smartest and most flexible of all producers in the economy. But because biomass cannot be transported along great distances, prices for feedstock for fuel and chemicals may be determined locally. For instance, straw prices have risen appreciably in Denmark, as a result of technological opportunities to process it. We must be careful with this, because we need some agricultural waste to be ploughed back in order to sustain soil fertility. But the Bloomberg report, which investigated the opportunities in this field, judges that even in a conservative estimate, the potential for chemical and fuel feedstock from side streams and double cropping is very large. In particular in Eastern Europe, there is a big potential.’

‘Farmers’ cooperatives might be helpful in realizing the potential. The good thing about the biobased economy is that it may promote rural development all across the world. The best incentive for farmers is to buy their products, and this is exactly what the biobased economy might bring about.’

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