To transform our current fossil based society to a sustainable climate neutral one within planetary boundaries, we need to produce our materials from biobased resources. The preferred way to do so is to use the functionalities that nature provides and fit those to the applications we need in everyday life. At Wageningen Food & Biobased Research we develop innovative technologies and value chains to source and valorize all the components in biomass as feedstock for renewable materials.
Local ecosystems are an increasing model to convert available bioresources such as agricultural, landscaping and forestry residues into a variety of sustainable products. Of course in developing such value chains this requires not only an outlook on economically viable business cases, but also positive impact on sustainability aspects like biodiversity, land-use, greenhouse gas, nitrogen emissions and soil health.
To enable the climate change combat it is essential to base our materials on renewable carbon sources recycling, biomass and on somewhat longer term CO2. One of the important aspects in this effort is to maximize the use of functionalities already present in the resources nature provides to society. Plants efficiently capture the CO2 from the air and vital nutrients from the soil to build very sophisticated structures and components. Using mild treatment and refining techniques the experts at WUR are able to maintain and use these functionalities in materials for all kinds of products such as packaging, clothing, composites, building and infrastructure. An example where this has been realized is the use of lignin as a binding component. In plants lignin provides strength by gluing the plant fibers together. The experts at WUR have developed a process to leverage this functionality by extraction of lignin from biomass and use this binding functionality in asphalt, thereby replacing fossil based bitumen. This way use of fossil oil is prevented and biobased carbon is sequestrated for a long time in a material, avoiding CO2 emissions.
Companies and governments are increasingly looking for local and regional solutions that fit both the available resources, industries and needs for providing the necessary Food, Feed, Energy and Materials. This requires an approach where stakeholders cooperate to use all parts of the biomass optimally. Stimulating regional economies and preventing long distance transport. This will not be possible in all cases for bulk industries, but it certainly is possible for example when using grass or horticulture residues as raw materials for building and insulation of houses. A challenge is to avoid waste and to use all parts of the biomass. So, when using the fibers from tomato plants for packaging, also extract the minerals and use those in the greenhouses as nutrients. What is left can still be used for example as biogas or soil enhancer. A truly circular and sustainable solution. Similarly, with innovative processes excess cow manure can be processed for example into fiber based packaging, fertilizers and biogas instead of directly digesting it into biogas, leaving a digestate waste.
Security of supply and healthy business model
A challenge in producing high quality products on biobased resources is to ensure the right quality and specifications throughout the year at viable cost. It is therefore essential to start controlling the feedstock directly after the harvest, or sometimes even sooner. Decay and loss of quality (and mass) starts in most cases nearly immediately due to microbial activity, so fast conservation or pretreatment can be crucial. By including a small scale separation step close to the location where the biomass is harvested, nutrients and organic matter can be returned to the land to keep the soil healthy and the raw materials for the intended products (food, feed, materials, fuels) transported to a larger facility. This leads not only to production of renewable materials, but also provides additional income for biomass owners like farmers, forestry owners, landscaping companies.
The whole picture
From a linear fossil based system to a sustainable circular biobased ecosystem requires completely new processes, value chains, regulations and collaborations; a complex and challenging task. With 150 researchers Wageningen Food and Biobased Research has over 30 years of experience in applied research in the domain of biobased and circular products. Together with innovative frontrunners from the industry, farmers, governments, NGO’s and research partners we can accelerate the necessary developments and contribute to a sustainable fossil free high quality future.
Connecting the composition of the biomass and the potential of the different components and their functionalities to the required products specifications maximizes the valorization of biomass. That is where our extensive knowledge and experience comes in. We assist industry building these new value chains by developing the necessary biorefinery technologies such as preservation, extraction, fermentation and downstream processing, but also in material production and testing. In our extensive lab and pilot scale facilities we at Wageningen Food and Biobased Research have developed numerous nature based materials such as binderless boards, tomato plant based packaging, biobased mouth-masks and renewable composite materials. And at the same time support the realization of regional ecosystems where innovative value chains are put into practice. Our aim is to create maximum value for the industry and positive environmental impact for society.
Working on solutions
Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is working on various solutions within this research programme: