A microorganism’s day at work

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What was once literally a pigsty in Skåne in southern Sweden is now the Anneberg biorefinery, a full laboratory with metal tanks and advanced research equipment. The biorefinery is home to a unique collection of microorganisms from around the globe, being put to work breaking down raw materials into natural chemicals that can be used to make products as diverse as fuel, biogas, plastics, food and more. These natural processes of breakdown represent countless opportunities to utilise nature’s resources in efficient, environment-friendly ways.

Many of the products currently coming from the petroleum industry could be produced more environmentally, with lower emissions and less toxic waste. Nature’s own chemical engineers – bacteria – can do the job. Even the waste from a biorefinery can be broken down and purified. Producing a range of products allows a biorefinery to utilise more of each raw material’s various components. A biorefinery can churn out chemical products, materials and fuel, all while generating the electricity and process heat it requires. Any leftover raw material can also be converted into biogas, so nothing goes to waste. This keeps energy costs down while reducing emissions of greenhouse gases normally associated with power production.

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That kind of efficiency is just what is needed. If the EU is to achieve the energy and climate targets set for 2020, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 20 per cent, while 20 per cent of its energy supply must come from renewable resources. This means industry must become more energy-efficient and environment-friendly. There is a growing awareness of the need to steer the economy in a more sustainable direction. The term “bioeconomy” has come to describe sustainable production and the conversion of biomass into energy and other necessary products. Making use of all the components of raw materials is a core concept.

Biorefining is a linchpin of the bioeconomy, but its full potential has yet to be realised. One major challenge lies in achieving fast, efficient, industrial-scale production. Many natural breakdown processes begin slowly at first, with productivity accelerating over time. These processes must also be sustainable – environmentally as well as economically – which is where continued research and development are critical.

45e9bbdd-b443-45e1-98a7-fbbd5302a6f1At the Anneberg research station, part of Lund University, researchers and industry engineers can run pilot projects to produce chemicals from a variety of biomass materials. Several pilot reactors are also available for producing biogas. “The Nordic countries are in the forefront of this research field. We just need to dare to take on more risk,” says Bo Mattiasson, Professor Emeritus in biotechnology at Lund University, as he guides his visitors through the research facility. “We in the Nordic countries need to cooperate more in order to succeed internationally.”

Drive farther with biogas

“There has been a lot of talk about bioethanol,” continues Professor Mattiasson. “Several Nordic public transport companies are in the process of switching over to renewable energy sources. And the debate about using arable land for producing biofuel rather than food is an important one, because many alternatives do exist.”

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Researchers at Anneberg have tested numerous types of raw materials, including crop waste such as rotting potatoes and beets from local farms. A variety of anaerobic bacteria are added, which work together to break down and convert what was once worthless matter into valuable biogas. Producing biogas instead of bioethanol may be a more efficient solution, believes the professor. “Vehicles running on biogas rather than ethanol can drive nearly twice as far for the same amount of raw materials. If land is scarce, we should be doing what is most energy-efficient.”

Needed in development cooperation

The various microorganisms working together from around the world can be seen as a metaphor for the value of international cooperation. “Biotechnology has such potential in the context of development cooperation,” explains Professor Mattiasson.

While industrialised countries have moved much of their production to developing countries, certain essential expertise such as water purification technology has not followed, leading to some large-scale environmental problems in many developing countries. So the need for knowledge transfer in the realm of biotechnology is critical, or as the professor puts it, “Biotechnology and development cooperation go hand in hand.”

Bacteria and other microorganisms are brought to the Anneberg biorefinery from all corners of the world. Often the most unique organisms are discovered in the most polluted places, and these are tested at the biorefinery to gauge their effect on the breakdown process. After all, when microorganisms from the entire planet get together, anything can happen.

Text: Lisa H. Ekli
Photo: Terje Heiestad
Translated by Darren D. McKellep and Carol B. Eckmann

The story is also published at sciencenordic.com

 

Towards sustainable development

The bioeconomy was high on the list of priorities when the Nordic Joint Committee for Agricultural and Food Research (NKJ) convened for its summer meeting in Copenhagen. Niels Gøtke, chair of the NKJ, was recently appointed as a Nordic member of the EU Bioeconomy Panel. As the Nordic Council of Ministers is maintaining its focus on the bioeconomy and green growth, NordForsk is now conducting consultations on a potential new green-growth initiative. So it was highly appropriate that the NKJ committee travelled to Skåne in southernmost Sweden to witness a very tangible step towards developing a working bioeconomy: the Anneberg biorefinery.
Bo Mattiasson, Professor Emeritus in biotechnology at Lund University, guided the visitors through the facility, situated midway between Lund and Helsingborg. Since the early 2000s this site has been a hub for research on converting biomass such as agricultural waste into biogas.

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At first glance, the research station appears to be just another unassuming farm surrounded by fertile landscape, but a sleek black structure protruding through the roof suggests this barn no longer houses cows and bales of hay. Inside are a series of large metal tanks, installed in 2012, that comprise the actual biorefinery where pilot-scale projects for biotechnological processes such as fermentation and enzymatic breakdown are carried out.

What is biorefining?

Biorefining is the conversion of renewable raw materials, often by-products from agriculture, into chemicals and a range of products such as plastics, food and animal feed, as well as fuels, biogas and heat. Biorefinery processes employ sustainable, natural means – such as breakdown by microorganisms and enzymes – in order to utilise resources efficiently.

The Anneberg biorefinery is suitably sized for the purposes of teaching, research and pilot projects. As part of Lund University, the research station provides an arena for interaction between researchers and industry. The test results achieved here give an indication of how suitable a process may be for the leap to large-scale production.

Altogether some 10 to 15 people work at the research station at irregular intervals depending on the projects underway. The students bring a variety of backgrounds – chemistry, the natural sciences, pharmacology, food science, agriculture – which Professor Mattiasson believes to be a great advantage. “Being surrounded by other disciplines can prove extremely useful in terms of scientific support,” says the energetic Swede, who despite the long years he has put in and his status as Professor Emeritus has no plans of retiring soon. “There is so much to do here,” he laughs, “it would be a pity to retire now.”

Large potential

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At the moment the tanks are empty. “We work case by case, and we cannot have production going non-stop, but we could run projects more often than we currently do.” He estimates that there is production in the tanks just 30 to 40 per cent of the time, so there is potential that can be further utilised, not least by industry. Before going ahead with large-scale projects, it is often necessary to test production at a smaller pilot facility. There are not many such sites, and industrial refineries are often scaled too large for the testing phase.

Professor Mattiasson believes that Nordic industry proceeds carefully in comparison to, for instance, US industry. “But we are in the forefront in research on the production of both chemicals and biogas. We only need to dare to take on more risk, and we in the Nordic countries need to cooperate in order to succeed internationally. This is where the Anneberg research station can really make a difference, for even the biggest projects start out small.”


Text: Lisa H. Ekli
Photo: Terje Heiestad
Caption: Tina Lindström, secretary of the NKJ, and Professor Bo Mattiasson in the biorefinery.

Chair of NKJ Niels Gøtke new member of the European Bioeconomy Panel

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Niels Gøtke. Photo: Terje Heiestad

The European Bioeconomy Panel is newly established by the European Commission to enhance synergies and coherence between policies, initiatives and economic sectors related to the Bioeconomy at EU level. The European Bioeconomy Panel will consist of experts with experience from academia, national administrations and from stakeholder groups relevant to the Bioeconomy. Niels Gøtke will serve as a representative of the Nordic countries.