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.
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.”
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.