3.4 Biorefinery concepts


Reducing our dependence on non-renewable resources for energy, but also consumer products, is a central objective of the EU. Building alternative value chains based on biomass is one of the solutions. In such value chains existing biorefinery units (e.g. pulp and sawmills) play an essential role as they can supply the downstream value chain actors with renewable, non-food raw material. On the other hand, the markets for certain traditional end products of forest-based value chains are declining, especially in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the role of recycled paper as a raw material for paper and board is growing compared to the use of virgin fibre. These developments generate an internal push to develop the existing European wood-handling mills. Novel biorefinery concepts will thus be crucial also from this internal perspective.

State of the Art 2012 

Hundreds of large, highly-integrated pulp mills are in operation globally. The leading concepts are built around Kraft, sulphite and a few other processes. The mills operate on both hard- and softwoods. Fast-growing wood species, especially eucalyptus, have been gaining ground. Annual plants, too, are used as raw material, for instance straw, which is popular in China. With regard to products, the main products of a Kraft mill are pulp and bioenergy, with some chemicals formed and isolated as by-products. Sulphite mills, on the other hand, produce a range of products (see RIA 4.3). Recently, new concepts to integrate the production of transport biofuels in existing mills have reached industrial pilot scale. The number of sawmills is even greater. In addition to their main product (sawn wood), sawmills also produce raw material for pulp mills, as well as heat and power, and energy carriers such as pellets.

Expected achievements by 2020 

The new biorefinery concepts will strengthen the competitiveness of the forest-based industries in their current markets, as well as lay the ground for new value chains to emerge. To ensure efficiency and to make a significant impact on the anticipated targets, many of the industrial developments by 2020 will be linked to existing mills. Integrated production of biofuels and other products at the mills is thus a likely development. Similar developments will also take place at mill wastewater treatment plants, where biogas and chemicals will be produced. Lignins from both current mills and emerging bioethanol plants will be a source of bulk and fine chemicals. New greenfield biorefineries will use flash pyrolysis, gasification and/or new wood fractionation methods. The range of raw materials processed by future biorefineries operated by the forest-based industries will be broadened to include agro-materials and various recycled materials (‘urban biorefinery’).

Required Research and Innovation Activities

A. Develop biomass supply chains, including supply chains for new biomass types (strong link to the ‘responsible management of forest resources’ Strategic Theme).

B. Demonstrate improved pulping processes (see RIA 3.1).
C. Develop concepts for turning the wastewater treatment plant into an energy-producing entity.
D. Develop separation technologies applicable in the forest-based industries and more specifically, demonstrate concepts for the separation of valuable components from pulping spent liquors.
E. Develop new biorefinery concepts using the sawmill as the starting point.
F. Extend the use of bark, harvesting residues and other side-streams to make woodworking and other products.
G. Develop concepts for turning recycled, solid wood products into fibre and other high-value products.
H. Develop combinations of mechanical, thermal, chemical and/or biochemical technologies for biomass deconstruction or fractionation and processing, laying the ground for new biorefineries producing novel materials for further upgrading.
I. Demonstrate novel concepts based on gasification, producing as an intermediate product, clean synthetic gas (‘syngas’).
J. Demonstrate novel concepts based on flash pyrolysis, producing as a first or intermediate product pyrolysis oil (‘bio-oil’).
K. Demonstrate concepts converting recycled/ waste fibres into fermentable sugar solutions.