19 Mar 2019

Engineered microbe may be key to producing plastic from plants

With a few genetic tweaks, a type of soil bacteria with an appetite for hydrocarbons shows promise as a biological factory for converting a renewable — but frustratingly untapped — bounty into a replacement for ubiquitous plastics.

Researchers, like those at the University of Wisconsin–Madison-based, Department of Energy-funded Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, hoping to turn woody plants into a replacement for petroleum in the production of fuels and other chemicals have been after the sugars in the fibrous cellulose that makes up much of the plants’ cell walls.

Much of the work of procuring those sugars involves stripping away lignin, a polymer that fills the gaps between cellulose and other chemical components in those cell walls.

That leaves a lot of useful cellulose, but also a lot of lignin — which has never carried much value. Paper mills have been stripping lignin from wood to make paper for more than a century, and finding so little value in the lignin that it’s simply burned in the mills’ boilers.

“They say you can make anything from lignin except money,” says Miguel Perez, a UW–Madison graduate student in civil and environmental engineering.

But they may not know Novosphingobium aromaticivorans as well as he does.

Perez, civil and environmental engineering professor Daniel Noguera and colleagues at GLBRC and the Wisconsin Energy Institute have published in the journal Green Chemistry a strategy for employing N. aromaticivorans to turn lignin into a more valuable commodity.

“Lignin is the most abundant source — other than petroleum — of aromatic compounds on the planet,” Noguera says, like those used to manufacture chemicals and plastics from petroleum. But the large and complex lignin molecule is notoriously hard to efficiently break into useful constituent pieces.

Enter the bacterium, which was first isolated while thriving in soil rich in aromatic compounds after contamination by petroleum products.

Where other microbes pick and choose, N. aromaticivoransis a biological funnel for the aromatics in lignin. It is unique in that it can digest nearly all of the different pieces of lignin into smaller aromatic hydrocarbons.

“Other microbes tried before may be able to digest a few types of aromatics found in lignin,” Perez says. “When we met this microbe, it was already good at degrading a wide range of compounds. That makes this microbe very promising.”

In the course of its digestion process, the microbe turns those aromatic compounds into 2-pyrone-4,6-dicarboxylic acid — more manageably known as PDC. By removing three genes from their microbe, the researchers turned the intermediate PDC into the end of the line. These engineered bacteria became a funnel into which the different lignin pieces go, and out of which PDC flows.

Bioengineers in Japan have used PDC to make a variety of materials that would be useful for consumer products.

“They have found out the compound performs the same or better than the most common petroleum-based additive to PET polymers — like plastic bottles and synthetic fibers — which are the most common polymers being produced in the world,” Perez says.

Miguel Perez It would be an attractive plastic alternative — one that would break down naturally in the environment, and wouldn’t leach hormone-mimicking compounds into water — if only PDC were easier to come by.

“There’s no industrial process for doing that, because PDC is so difficult to make by existing routes,” says Noguera. “But if we’re making biofuels from cellulose and producing lignin — something we used to just burn — and we can efficiently turn the lignin into PDC, that potentially changes the market for industrial use of this compound.”

For now, the engineered variation on N. aromaticivorans can turn at least 59 percent of lignin’s potentially useful compounds into PDC. But the new study suggests greater potential, and Perez has targets for further manipulation of the microbe.

“If we can make this pipeline produce at a sufficient rate, with a sufficient yield, we might create a new industry,” Noguera says.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has filed a patent application on this technology.

THIS RESEARCH WAS FUNDED BY GRANTS FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (BER DE-FC02-07ER64494 AND DE-SC0018409) AND THE CHILEAN NATIONAL COMMISSION FOR SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL RESEARCH. 

(Article sourced from: www.news.wisc.edu/engineered-microbe-may-be-key-to-producing-plastic-from-plants/)

14 Mar 2019

Design the penetration of Non-food Crops (NFC) into European agriculture: PANACEA Project

The Horizon 2020 PANACEA project aims to set up a thematic network to foster the effective exchange between research, industry and the farming community in order to design the penetration path of Non-food Crops (NFC) into European agriculture.

Non-food Crops (NFC) are used to produce a wide range of bio-products and bioenergy. In spite of considerable investment in R&D and the increasing need of bio-based industries for feedstock, NFCs are not widespread in EU agriculture. This is mainly due to challenges in supply chains and gaps in policy framework and investment incentives.

Aims of the project

PANACEA project aims to set up a thematic network to foster the effective exchange between research, industry and the farming community. In this way, direct applicable solutions will be widely disseminated as well as grassroots-level needs and innovative ideas will thoroughly captured in order to design the penetration path of NFC into European agriculture.

There are many objectives that PANACEA project is finalized at pursuing.

One of these is to create an inventory of long-term scientific results generated through R&I projects on the sustainable production of NFC as well as to identify those that are close to implementation in agricultural and forestry practice. Another one is to analyse the role that NFC can play in the renaissance of European rural areas taking into consideration the farmers’ and bio-based industries’ needs and interests.

To establish a strong and interactive multi-actor forum will be also fundamental, by involving a wide range of actors from science, industry and agricultural practice that will facilitate capturing and spreading innovative ideas.

At the same time, the PANACEA project will establish capacity building activities through substantial training courses and educational material with practice-oriented knowledge on specific value chains that will be easily accessible and available in the long term beyond the project period. Not only; the projects aims to develop, operate and maintain the PANACEA platform which will offer a range of services to key stakeholders and end-users on NFC, including: knowledge sharing, communication and networking, assessment of the economic and environmental aspects of NFC, and matching between the supply and demand sides.

The last PANACEA’s aim is to disseminate the project findings at large scale, following an extended exploitation and dissemination plan that will be active throughout the project and beyond. In the meanwhile, the project will ensure the sustainability of the Thematic Network on non-food crops through its link with EU wide initiatives, especially the EIP-AGRI and its Operational Groups.

PANACEA’s approach

For achieving its goal, PANACEA follows a multi-actor approach, including in the partnership researchers, agrimarket players, farmers’ organisations and other practitioners from different EU countries. In this way applied research and innovation results on a variety of NFC will flow across geographical areas in EU and reach the practitioners.

The work planned in the network follows interactive procedures, thus the applied knowledge and information already obtained by the practitioners is fed back to the researchers to enrich the relevant scientific research findings. It is recognised that the observed lack in market development for NFC is primarily the result of fragmented communication and slow exchange of science based evidence with day-to-day agricultural practices on the ground. Grassroots-level ideas, needs and success stories across EU will be analysed and extended to practitioners. Roadmaps mainstreaming NFC into European agriculture will be produced.

(Article sourced from: www.besustainablemagazine.com)

05 Mar 2019

Andrea Leoncini

Job title: Engineer 

Company: RINA Consulting

Tell us about your education and working life up to now.

I studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Genoa in Italy and I have been employed at RINA Consulting SpA since June 2014.

What is your main expertise?

I am mainly involved in industrial consultancy projects and European co-funded R&D projects dealing with the assessment of environmental, the economic and social sustainability of products and processes through the application LCA, LCCA and S-LCA methodologies. I am also involved in road-mapping activities for the identification and the development of business opportunities for industrial customers and associations. In particular, I am involved in consultancy activities for the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC), by supporting BIC in expanding bioeconomy concepts across Europe and in the identification of specific themes to be potentially incorporated in the Annual Work Plans to be published by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU).

What is your work focused on in the Rehap project?

I am responsible for LCA, LCCA and S-LCA of the developed bio-based processes and solutions, from the starting biomass supply to the final targeted applications. Moreover, we, as RINA, are also responsible for the market analysis and the business plan of the main products obtained in the project, as well as for resource efficiency studies on the developed processes.

What are the main challenges you face in this work and how are you meeting these challenges?

In the framework of environmental and economic sustainability assessments, one of the main challenges is the efficient integration of the several processes developed within the project. Due to the different scales of the process steps and the several involved partners, the collection of reliable data can represent a critical phase towards sustainability assessments. A strict cooperation with the different partners that are in charge of developing the several processes has been set up since the very beginning of the project, aiming to make them aware on LCA, LCCA and S-LCA methodologies and on the potential benefits that sustainability analysis can have in the further development phase of the targeted processes.

How do you see your work helping the project achieve its main objectives?

Sustainability criteria in terms of environmental, economic and social impacts are among the objectives of the project. One of the main targets of the project is indeed to reduce the utilisation of fossil resources, the required energy and CO2 emissions compared to similar commercially available processes. In this framework, sustainability assessment activities through LCA methodologies can significantly aid all project’s partners in steering the development activities towards more efficient and sustainable processes and products able to compete with existing benchmarks.

What impact do you see Rehap having in the future?

Processes and products developed and optimised within the project may help European bio-based industry to effectively involve the primary sector within the developed value chains, as well as penetrate the market with high-value bio-based materials (not limited to the construction sector). Indeed, the identification and the development of feasible and sustainable alternatives for valorising agro-forestry residues, other than the energetic use, can pave the way to the creation of new value chains and bio-based concepts, where the primary sector is involved and considered not just as a “biomass supplier”, but as a key partner to foster efficient and sustainable bio-based business cases.

sustainability assessment activities through LCA methodologies can significantly aid all project’s partners in steering the development activities towards more efficient and sustainable processes...

What do you enjoy more about working on a project like Rehap?

The project is a great opportunity for personal and professional growth. Indeed, Rehap consortium entails a wide array of expertise and knowledge, represented by many people and entities coming from different countries and sectors.

How would you like to see your work develop after the project ends?

I hope that the Rehap project can represent a “stepping stone” to further cooperations among partners, as well as to the future involvement of my working group in similar projects, aiming to assess the sustainability of bio-based processes and products.

Meet the other brains behind Rehap

05 Mar 2019

US-based scientist uncovers potential ‘sustainable’ refining method for lignin.

Lignocellulosic biorefinery needs to use complete feedstock to produce different products and if possible, high-value products, to make the refinery economically feasible. This requires new biorefinery processes like SOFA.”

A US scientist has claimed to have found a cost-effective way of extracting lignin from lignocellulosic biomass using selective organic solvent extraction. This method is also known as SOFA – a process that uses different conditions such as pH and temperature to derive lignin with different chemistry.

Dr. Joshua Yuan, chair of Synthetic Biology and Renewable products at Texas A&M University (@TAMU), has recently published his research findings in Green Chemistry, the peer-reviewed journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

He has promoted the use of the SOFA extraction method and other refining processes to produce multiple lignin streams.

This process is used so that a variety of lignin particles with different features can be produced,” Yuan said. “This will allow different functionality. It is an important consideration for applications like drug delivery and nanocomposites.”

As a result, he said, tailoring the lignin chemistry using SOFA provides a sustainable means for upgrading the low-value lignin and thus contributes to the profitability of biorefineries.

High-value products

Sustainable biorefinery heavily depends on the generation of value-added products, particularly from lignin. Despite considerable efforts, the production of fungible lignin bio-products is still hindered by the poor fractionation and low reactivity of lignin, according to the journal article.

Yuan said that lignocellulosic biomass can be used to produce second-generation biofuel, or advanced biofuel, which will be a sustainable and alternative solution to traditional fossil fuel. He added that grass-like sorghum and switchgrass can be grown to fix carbon dioxide and processed into ethanol for fuel.

He explained: “Considering the high yield of energy sorghum, energy cane and other feedstock, the productivity per acre is much higher than corn ethanol. This will reduce carbon balance and improve the energy output of biofuel. For perennial feedstock like switchgrass and energy cane, it also promotes soil and water conservation as well as biodiversity.”

Cost-effectiveness

Yuan said the problem is that lignin is the waste in this biorefinery process, which negatively impacts the economics and sustainability of the biorefinery. He said the utilisation of lignin for high-value products will improve biorefinery cost-effectiveness and sustainability significantly.

“Lignin nanoparticle is a high-value product that could achieve this, when it is used for bulk products like slow-release fertiliser,” he said. “Another very important aspect is that lignin is generally considered safe and biocompatible. And lignin nanoparticle can be used for drug delivery.”

Yuan said one of the most important challenges in biorefinery, specifically lignocellulosic biorefinery, is to utilise lignin for high-value products, Yuan said.

“Most of the current biorefinery configuration focuses on ethanol as the single product, which brings limited value to the output,” he said. “If you look at the corn ethanol biorefinery, they have distillers grains and corn oil as the by-products to add value, so that the refinery can make money. In the same way, the petroleum biorefinery industry utilises every bit of feedstock to produce different (preferably higher value) products.

“Lignocellulosic biorefinery needs to use complete feedstock to produce different products and if possible, high-value products, to make the refinery economically feasible. This requires new biorefinery processes like SOFA.”

Yuan said a plant cell wall has three major components: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Both cellulose and hemicellulose are sugar-based, and can be used for ethanol fermentation.

He went on to say: “But lignin is an aromatic polymer, and we need to find good use for it. This paper provides one of the solutions.

“My lab has been focused on this, and we have developed routes to produce high quality carbon fibre, nanoparticles, asphalt binder modifier, bio-plastics and bio-diesel from lignin. This research was supported by the (US) Department of Energy Bioenergy Technology Office.”

(Article sourced from: www.biobasedworldnews.com/us-scientist-uncovers-potential-sustainable-refining-method-for-lignin)

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