Bio4Energy is a research environment based in northern Sweden, in Europe. Bio4Energy research and development is aimed at creating methods and tools for industry's conducting efficient and sustainable biorefinery. Input raw materials powering the processes created by Bio4Energy are sourced either from the forest (forestry residue, wood) or other organic waste. Bio4Energy may be seen as a centre of excellence in international biorefinery research. Mid 2014 Bio4Energy's membership consisted of approximately 250 researchers and and some 20 companies part of the Bio4Energy Industrial Network. Bio4Energy welcomes expressions of interests from potential collaboration partners in industry, academia and among research institutes.
A Biorefinery Research Environment
The research environment Bio4Energy aims to create highly efficient and environmentally-sound biorefinery processes—including methods and tools for making products such as biofuels, 'green' chemicals and new bio-based materials—which draw on biomass sourced from forests or organic waste as a raw material.
Raw materials, or 'feedstock', should be used as completely and as efficiently as possible at all stages of the biorefinery value chain. This is taken to mean from the designing or planting of the first seed for growing a tree, through to the development of consumer products that can be commercialised and add value for their soundness in terms of economic, environmental and social impact.
Some of the things Bio4Energy aims to do differently are to use all parts of the tree and to recycle or recover byproducts that typically go to waste in mainstream forestry operations. Some of the Bio4Energy scientists—there are more than 230 of them—are developing processes by which to turn such residual streams into energy, high-value specialty chemicals or other bio-based products.
At the core of Bio4Energy are two process platforms. The Bio4Energy Thermochemical and Biochemical Platforms are those who turn out new or improved processes for making advanced biofuels, such as dimethyl ether or second-generation bioethanol; new bio-based materials or 'green' chemicals which, in turn, may be used as building blocks in bio-based plastics or pharmaceuticals, coatings, liners, adhesives or a number of other things.
The research environment also has a world-leading grouping which studies and develops the woody feedstock used in Bio4Energy's processes. Simply put, this Bio4Energy Feedstock Platform, hosted by the Umeå Plant Science Centre, makes 'better' trees. Being based in Scandinavia, a large part of which sits in the boreal belt, the foremost feedstock derives from spruce and pine trees, or residues from processes in which they are used, such as in the pulp and paper industry. However, varieties of poplar or hybrid aspen are also being studied and the question put whether exotic tree species may be grown successfully on northern latitudes.
The Bio4Energy Pre-treatment and Fractionation Platform, and the Bio4Energy Catalysis and Separation Platform, for their part, are there to facilitate the journey that the energetic content of biomass must make for it to become a suitable for being converted to products, as well as a cost-competitive alternative to petrochemicals. Seemingly small inventions in these platforms may make all the difference in terms of the efficiency of the thermal or biochemical conversion of biomass to fuels or chemicals. The task then of the Bio4Energy Process Integration Platform is to make sure various processes, such as in a biorefinery, function with maximal efficiency in terms of energy use and as a unit. In a biorefinery a number of processes and their stream of primary and side products have to function efficiently together.
Finally the task of the Bio4Energy Environmental Platform is to check to make sure that the methods and tools being developed by the other six platforms have a low or no detrimental impact on the environment, with the aim of 'closing the loop' in terms of only inputting renewable raw materials and limiting noxious emissions to air, ground and water to a strict minimum. In the first operating period of Bio4Energy, 2010-2015, the Environmental Platform's dual foci were placed on system analysis assessing mainly climate change-inducing emissions of bio-based processes, on the one hand, and on limiting organic emissions at source, on the other. During a possible second mandate, 2015-2020, the perspective would expand to encompass resource efficiency along the value chain of biorefinery products and calculating the cost of various options for making sure biorefinery operations are sustainable.
One vision, many partners
A large number of industrial operators have endorsed Bio4Energy and are part of a Bio4Energy Industrial Network. The scientists cooperate with them to develop advanced biofuels, 'green' chemicals or other bio-based products, such as new materials made using nanotechnology. Another strand of work focuses on eliminating noxious emission or residues from existing industrial process. For instance, methods are being designed to convert biomass ashes and sludge into renewable energy, liming materials or low-polluting fertilizers. In some cases, high-temperature processes will be used to rid the biorefinery process of heavy metals or toxic organic compounds.
Another promising line of research in Bio4Energy targets the capture and recycling of carbon dioxide (CO2), the international reference for greenhouse gases. New technologies for CO2 capture and reuse that rely on catalytic conversion are being invented. When it comes to development, Bio4Energy researchers have realised inventions which have led to new pilot facilities being installed (just off the campus of the lead organisation Umeå University) for pre-treating biomass by roasting it (torrefaction). Two other groups have made ample use of Sweden's only demonstration unit for bioethanol production, the SP Biorefinery Demo Plant at Örnsköldsvik. Yet others collaborate with Swedish pellet industry, characterising and modulating biomass materials at the Röbäcksdalen pilot facilities at Umeå. Further north, at Piteå, Bio4Energy researchers are an integral part of a team tasked with trialing, perfecting and upscaling production of biofuels made via the gasification route. At the LTU Green Fuels centre, 'ultra' low-polluting dimethyl ether (or bioDME) fuel is made from a residual product of the pulping process, black liquor, using so-called entrained-flow gasification technology.
A research 'environment'
Bio4Energy is not only a research programme, but also a research environment. At its core are three Swedish universities recognised as national leaders in education and research on bioenergy, biotechnology and forest management. They are Umeå University, Luleå University of Technology and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. A large number of Sweden-based firms and a handful of innovation and research institutes have signed up to become partners. Of these Innventia and the Energy Technology Centre at Piteå are founding members of Bio4Energy. There is also the SP Technical Institute of Sweden which joined up in 2012. SP Processum and Solander Cleantech, both of which organisations are close to or represent industry, are Strategic Partners of Bio4Energy. Several other cooperation partners could be mentioned.
Moreover research collaborations are underway with research organisations or groups in Europe as well as in the U.S.A., Australia, Canada, China, Russia, Taiwan, Japan and other countries. The Bio4Energy research programme is committed to sustainable resource use and aware of the European Union's efforts to combat climate change by lessening the reliance on fossil fuels and boosting the use of renewable energy. In particular, Bio4Energy works to align its practices on advice issued by the European Technology Platforms devoted to forests, plants and biofuels, respectively. Since early 2014, Bio4Energy is a member of the European Bio-based Industries' Consortium, and since July 2014 also a member of a Bio-based Industries' Joint Undertaking, approved in the same month, as a part of the European Union's Joint Technology Initiatives' process.
Bio4Energy aims to be a driving force for innovation and thereby the creation of small and medium-sized enterprise. It has set up its own graduate school so as to provide post-secondary training for a new generation of academic researchers, to develop scientific expertise in bioenergy, bio-based chemicals and, as a separate strand, biotechnology. In spring 2014, efforts to provide an undergraduate training programme for future engineers of 'Bioresource' Technology are set to bear fruit as the programme is unveiled to presumptive students.
Bio4Energy was born in late 2009, when the Swedish government agreed to offer a constellation of 44 mostly Swedish biorefinery researchers its support for developing over five years a Strategic Research Environment, tasked with drawing together some of the best brains in bioenergy and biorefinery research and development, as well as create links and collaboration within the designed academic cluster and cooperation with industrial actors.
The government's generous support, topped up with contributions from the member universities and external funds won as a result of it, have allowed Bio4Energy to expand from the initial 44 to 235 researchers (as of March 2014; about 250 as of July 2014), originating from a number of countries but now affiliated with one or more of Bio4Energy's founding partners. In 2009, more than 20 industrial companies pledged their support for the creation of Bio4Energy by signing letters of endorsement.
Bio4Energy has seven research platforms, each of which corresponds to a link in the biorefinery value chain.
Bio4Energy is a research environment that develops methods and tools for operating the biorefinery value chain from A to Z. There are five 'process' platforms. Their members work to provide science to ensure that all steps of that chain may be run in an economically, environmentally and a socially sustainable way. In addition, there is one Process Integration Platform that serves to link up the work carried out across the others, and one Environmental Platform to check that Bio4Energy's credentials are as 'green' as they are claimed to be. Bio4Energy notably aims to align its operations on sustainability criteria set out under the European Union's 2009 renewable energy directive. As far as possible, these efforts should pave the way for Bio4Energy's industrial partners to design products and processes that are energy efficient and emit no or a minimum of noxious emissions, including no or low climate-change inducing or toxic output.
The feedstock in processes developed by Bio4Energy is sourced from forests or organic waste and so not from biomass which might be used for food production. Biofuels and other products developed by Bio4Energy are second generation or more advanced. In Bio4Energy platform leaders and their closest helpers are called principal investigators (PIs). For the Bio4Energy Environmental, Process Integration, Catalysis and Separation and the Biochemical Platforms, these PIs have been listed under the respective platform banners below, along with further Bio4Energy members of staff. As of July 2013, there are also a full listing of members and contact details for researchers on the Bio4Energy Pretreatment and Fractionation Platform.
Breaking the dependence of fossil fuels is one of our time's greatest challenges. Bioenergy scientists and entrepreneurs in northern Sweden have joined together to develop green technologies for converting forest-sourced biomass into biofuels and other bio-based products. The internationally leading research covers the entire biorefinery value chain—from developing the seeds for robust trees to grow, to producing renewable fuels and other energy carriers. The 'green' chemicals produced could also find uses in the pharmaceuticals, clothing and packaging industries.
In 2008 the share of crude oil, petroleum products and solid fuels stood at almost 53.5 per cent of gross inland consumption of primary energy (corresponding to 1,799 million tonnes of oil equivalent) in the 27 European Union member states, according to the EU's statistical body Eurostat. The corresponding share of renewable energy was almost 8.5 per cent, of which 6 per cent was sourced from biomass. This is more than the total share of hydro power, geothermal energy, solar or wind power. Transport accounted for 32 per cent of final energy consumption in the EU 27.
While the European Union aims to achieve a ten per cent share of biofuels in automotive transport by 2020, the Swedish government has resolved to phase out fossil fuels in transport by 2030. The research programme Bio4Energy is committed to making a contribution towards both goals. However, it is mindful of recommendations by the European Environment Agency (Scientific Committee, 2008) and others who have warned that encouraging large-scale production of biofuels, especially those that are first generation, may compromise the world’s natural capital, including soil, water and biodiversity.
Thus Bio4Energy has made it a top priority not only to develop a greatly efficient biorefinery process with as few and as minor adverse environmental effects as possible, but also to design feedstock that will 'perform' with maximal efficiency. That is, Bio4Energy should be designing trees with superior qualities in terms of energy content, ability to withstand pests and changing climatic conditions, as well as malleability in technological processes and logistics. The following is a rendition of some of the things that Bio4Energy does and the context in which it operates.
Northern Sweden possesses vast forest resources. Sweden's forestry industry is successful on the international market. Still, competition on is rife. There is also growing awareness about the impacts of man-made greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels and the need for a more efficient use of natural resources. Thus Europe and the world are increasingly looking to harness renewable alternatives. The offer of Bio4Energy and its partners is to develop technologies that can convert low-cost biomass from forests into high-value products. These can be energy-efficient biofuels and 'green' specialty chemicals.
Biorefinery that doesn't pollute
In 2009, Bio4Energy was appointed to develop a research environment in northern Sweden to advance science and technology in the fields of bioenergy and biotechnology using biomass sourced from forests as a raw material. As such this research programme is leading efforts to develop one of Sweden's “strategic areas for research' over a five-year period from 2010 to 2015, based on a €20 million grant from the Swedish government.
Bio4Energy also draws support from its academic and industrial partners. The former include Umeå University, Luleå University of Technology and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. More than 20 industrial companies are part of Bio4Energy. The programme also collaborates with research initiatives such as Funcfiber and it successor Bioimprove – Better Trees for Bioenergy and Material Production, as well as a number of universities and research institutes in Europe, the U.S.A., Australia, Canada, China and Russia.
A chief aim is to deliver methods and tools with which to run highly integrated and efficient biorefinery processes with a minimal negative impact on the natural environment. If granted support beyond a ten-year year period, the Bio4Energy partners aim for their concerted work to make a substantial contribution towards meeting the EU’s climate-change and energy-related goals, according to Bio4Energy Director Stellan Marklund. In addition, with its overarching focus on achieving efficiency throughout the biorefinery value chain, and its bid to produce renewable products which can replace environmentally harmful and energy intensive ones, Bio4Energy also addresses the resource efficiency initiative under Europe’s 2020 flagship strategy. Development of scientific expertise, training of bioenergy scientists and students, and technology transfer of improved biorefinery methods to regions with a lesser technological know-how should be part of that contribution. Plans are being draw up for checking the environmental quality of the work across the seven Bio4Energy platforms. Life-cycle analysis might be used as a first step in this process.
Bio4Energy scientists use biotechnological tools to improve both qualitative and quantitative aspects of biomass sourced from trees. In collaboration with officials from the United States Department of Energy, researchers on the Bio4Energy Feedstock Platform have contributed to mapping the entire genome sequence of the poplar tree species. Then, together with industry, they have helped assembling a collection of 500 transgenic poplar genotypes modified in key genes for growth and wood formation. The data obtained are being used to identify biological tree designs that tend to produce rapid-growth, resilient trees with high-quality biomass. Properties such as the composition of lignocellulosic materials are a point of study. New research will focus on spruce as a model organism. Spruce is the most important tree for the Swedish forest industry in financial terms.
Maximally prepared biomass
Plants and parts of plants contain different functional and structural units. With state-of-the-art technologies well-defined, fractionated biomass is being developed for further upgrading into biofuel pellets and similar products. Torrefication, or “roasting”, is a flexible pre-treatment method that can be applied to biomass. The method is used to turn solid, raw biomass into a dry, hydrophobic and brittle product with high energy density. This makes the transformed biomass easier to transport, store and handle. In addition to developing methods for torrefication, Bio4Energy researchers will also be targeting the ten per cent side stream of gaseous 'green' chemicals emitted during the torrefication process which, they believe, might be recovered as energy or as used in other products.
From trees to products
The Bio4Energy scientists use two main technologies for conversion of raw materials into renewable fuels, bio-based electricity and further “bioproducts”. One is the thermal conversion of biomass, which is a technology based on gasification and combustion. It is being used in research projects on gasification of black liquor. A highly efficient technology for recovering this byproduct of pulping operations has been developed and patented. A second key technology draws on biocatalysts and bioprocesses for conversion of raw materials.
At Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, Bio4Energy’s industrial partners are testing new forms biomethanol and bioDME made from tree residues from forestry operations. The research conducted there by Bio4Energy’s industrial partner Chemrec focuses on developing processes for stepping up production to large volumes. Thus it paves the way for scaling up the technology and processes that Bio4Energy helped design so that the output, second-generation biofuels in this case, can be commercialised. A new Swedish Center for Gasification, directed by a scientist on Bio4Energy’s Thermochemical Platform, will be party to the development of that technology.