BEACON – From Plants to Products – a Biorefining Centre of Excellence in Wales
Feb 17 2017
Author: Selwyn Owen and Dr Mike Morris on behalf of Aberystwyth University
Led by Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Science (IBERS), in collaboration with its partners at Bangor and Swansea Universities, the BEACON initiative integrates expertise and facilities to assist companies in developing new products and processes or to upgrade existing processes, using low carbon technologies including biomass where possible. Backed with £8 million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), BEACON aims to establish Wales as a Biorefining Centre of Excellence and make a vital contribution to mitigating climate change and growing the Welsh bioeconomy.
Increasing awareness of the environmental impact and resource limitation of producing chemicals, materials, transport fuels and energy from fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and oil is driving a reappraisal of how best to manufacture these products. Plant biomass is the world’s largest biorenewable resource that can be converted (biorefined) into innovative, sustainable transport fuels, fibre, chemical and pharmaceutical commodities to help grow the Welsh bioeconomy. BEACON researchers partner with companies operating in a range of sectors, providing access to expertise and pilot scale biorefining facilities, bringing sustainable innovations closer to domestic and international market deployment. As such, public-private partnerships with BEACON have the potential to support economic growth and job creation, while revolutionising the traditional manufacturing base.
Partnering with BEACON offers a company access to the broad range of expertise available at the three Welsh Universities along with some unique Welsh processing facilities. In addition to developing new products and processes, engagement with BEACON can result in the creation of preliminary data or assessment of ‘proof of concept’ ideas and technologies than can attract investment or support further funding to help drive innovation.
What is biorefining?
Biorefining takes organic material e.g. plants and uses a series of mechanical, biological and chemical processes to convert the biomass into a broad range of commercially important products including pharmaceuticals, transport fuels, energy sources and chemicals.
The benefits of biorefining
- Replacing some of the industrial chemicals produced from oil with similar molecules from plants that could supply potentially lucrative markets within easy reach of Welsh producers.
- Turning crops like rye grass, miscanthus and oats into valuable fuels and chemicals would cut back on greenhouse gases and increase fuel and chemical security whilst adding value to the Welsh economy.
- Chemicals derived from plants have uses in a range of sectors, including transport, food, health, hygiene and the environment.
- Producing new materials such as bio-composites and bio-plastics. As well as creating and safeguarding jobs in West Wales and the Valleys, the pioneering work will help develop science in Wales.
Key areas of focus for BEACON include:
- Bio-based and bio-degradable packaging materials for the packaging and retail industries.
- Low carbon materials for use by the transport and construction industries that are lighter in weight and have improved insulation properties.
- Platform chemicals (e.g. lactate and succinate) that are building blocks used by the chemical industry for the production of biopolymers for industrial materials.
- Separation technologies to provide products for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical industries.
- Development of solutions for end-of-life products (e.g. polyethylene) to meet the needs of the chemical industry and society in general.
- Pyrolysis to create biochar and activated carbon for filtration and bioremediation.
- The integration of gasification and biotechnology as a source of chemical building blocks and fuels.
- Microbial development for improved production of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
- Industrial symbiosis, the holistic treatment of products and processes to minimise waste and maximise value.
- Process optimisation and sustainability including greenhouse gas inventories through life cycle assessment coupled to technoeconomic analysis of processes.
The Aim of BEACON
The main aim of BEACON is to use the concept of biorefining to work with end user companies, in order to identify a wide range of products from plant material which are tailored to their requirements.
The biorefinery concept uses non-food crop feedstocks in much the same way that oil refineries use crude oil to produce a broad spectrum of commodity products. It seeks to give manufacturing companies a commercial advantage in the marketing of these renewable products as well in the future environmental and economic sustainability of their businesses through application of these developing technologies.
BEACON offers businesses with interests in the biorefining sector access to the research, expertise and knowledge base of universities in Wales.
- Companies in the construction, packaging and manufacturing industries by developing new biocomposite materials
- The bioscience industry – for example, developing new microbial or enzyme systems and technologies for the processing of biomass
- The chemical industry by providing new sources of ‘green’ chemicals
Rural communities by
a) applying biorefinery technology to the processing of non-food crops
b) offering alternative markets for existing biomass
c) creating skilled jobs
Examples of the work BEACON partners can undertake:
Formulation of new biocomposites
Extrusion / bioplastics
Novel chemistries / applications
Metabolic engineering of yeasts
Protein modelling such as new enzymes for e.g. food industry or bioprocessing
BEACON has a number of core strategic activities. These are:
Understanding how to efficiently process wet biomass using mechanical and physicochemical technologies
Conversion of lignocellulose biomass into biofuels
Conversion of wet biomass into platform chemicals and fine chemicals
Developing and enhancing enzymes and microbial systems for the production of products such as fine chemicals and transport fuels
Isolating commercially important molecules using membrane technologies and supercritical fluids
Production of bioplastics from biomass
Production of biobased packaging from biomass
Developing ‘End of Life’ methodologies associated with pyrolysis and the production of biochar and bio-oil
Evaluation of processing routes from biomass to products and developing the associated economic modelling
BEACON have added value to our company through the use of pilot-scale equipment which is not currently available at any other organization we know about. Robert Nash – Director, Phytoquest
BEACON has provided considerable support to Pennotec, including providing network support for the future development of the business and a compelling Technology Strategy Board grant application. Jonathan Hughes – Director, Pennotec
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