Agricultural companies and the food industry have extensive residual streams of biomass. Their challenge is to make these organic residual flows suitable as stable raw materials for high-quality products. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has developed various methods for pre-treatment of biomass. These methods make organic residual flows suitable for high-grade processing or temporary storage.
Storing and unlocking biomass
Getting the right quality raw materials from biomass, that is the challenge facing agribusinesses and food companies. It is not easy: for example, grass is only harvested a few times a year and its composition varies greatly. Moreover, a lot of biomass can sometimes be kept for less than a day after being harvested. Pre-treatment is necessary to conserve the biomass and to be able to store it. Next, it is important to unlock the desired components from biomass, so that these components can be used for further processing.
Various methods of pretreatment
Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has developed various pre-treatment methods, depending on the type of biomass and the desired products. Using these methods, we make biomass suitable for further processing or conservation. In most cases, we already partially or fully open up the cells. It is often the first step in the process of biorefinery, the sustainable processing of biomass into products and energy. Thanks to pre-treatment, we can carry out processes such as enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation faster, more efficiently and at lower costs. It also ensures that valuable components from biomass can be processed continuously.
Mechanical processes are often the starting point: the biomass is shredded, separated into different fractions or squeezed, for example, to obtain protein-rich streams. Lignocellulosic biomass, such as wood or straw, can be digested with acid or alkali, possibly in combination with high temperature. High temperature alone, with superheated steam for example, can also open up biomass and kill microbes that cause decay. We are doing a lot of research into methods that can break down lignocellulose under the mildest possible conditions. The functionalities of components thus remain intact, while energy costs remain limited and the risk of forming undesired by-products is low. An example is enzymatic digestion. Furthermore, bacteria or fungi can also be used for conversion. Combinations of pre-treatment methods are, of course, also possible.
To measure whether contaminants or certain micro-organisms are present during the pretreatment of biomass, we have developed a large number of rapid diagnostic tests and bioassays. These tools enable us to monitor and control processes quickly and properly.
Examples of biomass pretreatment
In numerous projects, we have demonstrated that we can successfully pre-treat biomass for further processing:
- In various projects we simplify the next step in biorefinery. For example, by treating woody crops with a refiner, using enzymatic hydrolysis for wheat straw and opening up tea leaves with pulsed electric fields. These methods make it easier to extract fibres, proteins or smaller molecules, such as sugars or polyphenols, from the biomass.
- In a recent project, biomass undergoes a steam treatment to increase protein digestibility for animal feed and to increase biogas yield in fermentation.
- By drying or dewatering, we can make biomass more stable and transportable. Processes similar to ensilage are also suitable for this. Which method is most suitable, depends on the chain, from biomass to application.
Do you want to convert your organic residues into valuable products? With our broad experience, we develop the right approach for you. Please feel free to contact us for an exploratory talk.