Professor Axel Tuma, Dr. Andrea Thorenz
Chair of Production & Supply Chain Management, Institute of Materials Resource Management, University of Augsburg
Professor Tuma and Andrea Thorenz are currently working with the REHAP project, which is aiming to strengthen the European bio-economy by creating novel materials from agricultural and forestry waste, and assessing how they can be used commercially in the green building sector. Still in the early stages of the project, the main task being they are undertaking at present involves a literature and data base review about the ‘arisings’ and focal substances like lignin, tannin or cellulose of the first aggregate, which will be used for the project. Arisings are the amount of base material available to be used at the start of the value chain in the development of bio-products.

Has this study revealed any interesting findings to date?

axel headshotAXEL: Well, our study is basically looking at how much “stuff” we have in Europe and, if we scale up what we have found so far and if we are really successful in the project, we think we can drive a bio-economy with agroforestry waste.

The study has focused on how much base biomaterial we have in Europe and where is it located. For example, we have found out that we have a lot of wheat straw in the Paris area. So, the interesting question now is how much of it can we use? First of all, we have the bio-mass, but of course everything that is needed in the food chain should remain for food; we don’t want to touch this. The next thing is to look to the farmers; they use, for example, straw as a soil conditioner. We don’t want to change this, so we need to work out the sustainable removal rate. For example, only 40 per cent of the wheat straw should be removed from the field. Then we have other competitive users like horse bedding, straw for cattle and so on. Essentially, we want to keep things sustainable and traditional in terms of all this, and calculate what we are able to remove while doing so. In this way, we don’t touch the food issue and are sustainable when it comes to farming methods.

How have you done this study?

andrea headshotANDREA: First of all, we investigated all the existing databases. Fortunately, the data that exists about the subsidies the farmers get from the European Union is very well reported and clearly shows where the bio-mass from this goes. We have also taken some research using industry reports and we have now put all this data together. What we have produced is a report about where materials come from and what are most useful for us.

 The most promising species in the agricultural sector is wheat, which we expected, with large arisings of 46million tonnes of bio-economic potential, which we can use without bothering the farmers. This is followed by maize stover, barley straw and rapeseed. In terms of the areas where these materials are currently grown, it is quite interesting. The area of Paris is really important concerning wheat straw, with nearly 7 million tonnes in the area alone. South West France is also highly productive with wheat, so, France is very important in terms of wheat. The Czech Republic and Bulgaria follow. France, again, Italy and Romania are important areas for maize stover and the area of Paris and Spain are interesting concerning barley and rapeseed.

Were any of these results unexpected?

ANDREA: Yes. It is the first time that we have used this type of research and I was surprised with the fact that it is so centred on France. I think that we have a lot of materials. If we put it all together, it is more than 100 million tonnes per year and that is a very good base on which to build a bio-economy.

Did you also work on forecasting how much material will be available in the future?

AXEL: Yes. And again, wheat is the most promising. We used different methods, based on expert estimations from the European Union. If you look at the example of rapeseed, in the last 15 years, we have grown production from around 10 mega tonnes to 25 mega tonnes. This 2.5 growth factor is due to the fact that rapeseed goes to the bio-energy sector and this is incentivised. So, you see that when there is an incentive driven by the EU, it does work.

On the other hand, when we look at the expert’s estimations going forward, we see that they are going down in terms of rapeseed production. An explanation for this is a lowering of the incentives to grow rape for energy and so a switch away from energy crops in general. The interesting thing here for me is the clear impact the policy makers have on growth yields. This, of course, is positive news for projects like REHAP, because if we are successful and can convince policy makers of the benefits of our bio-products, what they then do can have an impact on what biomass is grown and where. So we can help drive policy.

Would it be fair to say that if we continue growing rapeseed at this rate, that it is using land that could be used for other crops?

AXEL: Yes, that is true, which is why it also is important to carry out social and life cycle assessment. We have to balance this and look at all the processes involved in making a bio-product and assess the impact it all has, environmental and even social impacts. I think that is the very clever approach this project is taking. So, the study is now proving from your initial results that there is a good basis for expanding the bio-economy based on what is available and what can be used sustainably.

What is next once this particular work is done and how can this then be usefully applied?

ANDREA: After this study, we will deal with the issue of quality - the question of whether or not the quality is sufficient in the places we find the materials. This work is done in the same work package, and will impact on the data we have produced and enhance it. We will then complete the database and make it available for all. This will show us where the most interesting bio-mass, like wheat, maize, barley and bark is now and will be for the next 10 years for specific regions of Europe. It will also, to a large extent, identify the quality of this material as far as we can.

AXEL: Another point about this study that was also interesting relates to the issue of sustainable supply chain and resource management. Coming from a background of supply chain management, I am normally developing strategic supply chains, which means where is the procurement site, where are the production facilities, where are storage areas and distribution centres?

So here we will design an optimal network for a European bio-economy. What is the cost, ecoefficiency and the optimal procurement strategy in these areas? From there, we can predict how many procurement points, how many storage points, what facilities and what capacity is needed and where, hopefully close to the customers. We will do this on a cost data basis, but also using the life cycle data and the social life data. With all this in place, the data you have and then the planning for the infrastructure, how big do you think that the bio economy can get? AXEL: The people are so inspiring and to be honest, I cannot really estimate. In my opinion, it is difficult to develop all these bio chemical processes but I am optimistic with the skills of the people.

So, significant growth potential is there?

AXEL: Yes. I think so. We are really believers in closed-loop supply chains, which mean that we do not only look at the supply chain, but also issues like re-use, re-manufacturing and effective recycling. This is a common approach with industrial products, like computers, cell-phones and so on. So, this is the first time that we have entered this bio-arena and looked closely at a green cycle or the starting point of a green cycle.

What do you mean by green cycles?

ANDREA: A green cycle means that all the products we construct, from the first material, will come back in a recycling cycle. We really believe that if we want, or if future generations want, life on this planet, we have to imitate nature, which really does go in green cycles and has done for hundreds of millions of years. Take a tree, which can stand for hundreds of years. When it falls, microorganism take its residues, make fresh soil and give life to new trees. In the same spirit we must produce bio-based products, which will be reintegrated in nature and come back in many new ways and cycles. This is the starting point for a green cycle and a circular economy. It is our belief that if we work in this field we will come closer to nature and in that way we can develop a real circular economy, as nature has done for hundreds of millions of years.