The secrets of biomolecules

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As the spearhead of R&D at SUEZ, the International Water and Environmental Research Centre (CIRSEE) conducts research into new ways of recovering waste, including its transformation into biomolecules. Around 10 projects addressing this issue are in progress and a brand new specialised laboratory has just opened.

Most of our waste, be it agricultural, domestic or industrial, forms a massive reserve of secondary raw materials. Amongst the many possible means of recovery, the transformation of this waste into molecules of interest to green chemistry is one option.

An introduction to green chemistry

Dating back to the 1990s, the so-called “green chemistry” movement aims to limit the use of non-renewable resources and the environmental impacts of the production of chemical compounds and their derivatives. Sometimes called “ecological chemistry”, this discipline imagines new processes and means of synthesis that are “cleaner” and favour the use of raw materials of renewable origin (plant and animal biomass). The “biomolecules”, or “bio-sourced” molecules produced by converting this biomass can advantageously replace oil-sourced molecules that rely on the use of carbon of fossil origin (oil, natural gas, coal). As resources dwindle, these biomolecules are of great interest to numerous industries, such as chemicals, energy, agriculture and food, and pharmaceuticals companies.

A diverse range of processes (mechanical, biological, thermal, catalytic, etc.) are used in biorefineries to produce these biomolecules according to two main approaches: on the one hand, the structural approach that isolates biomolecules similar to those used in fossil carbon-based chemistry in order to replace them, and on the other hand, the functional approach, which explores ways of obtaining new molecules with properties equivalent or superior to those of oil-sources molecules.

Today’s biorefineries essentially use food-based biomass (wheat, maize, sugar cane, sugar beet, palm oil, etc.) to produce biomolecules, such as ethanol and biodiesel. But, against the backdrop of worldwide population growth and climate change that are making food self-sufficiency, the conservation of arable land and its reasonable use essential, attention is now turning to the use of organic waste.

From waste to biomolecules: a challenge that is complex for researchers, but very promising for the environment

“SUEZ manages millions of tonnes of organic waste that is a strong candidate for supplying input for green chemistry. Wood, paper and cardboard waste, and industrial, commercial and domestic food waste are of particular interest,” explain Marion Crest and Benjamin Percheron, the members of the CIRSEE team working on the recovery of organic waste who are in charge of biomolecule-related initiatives.

Around 30 SUEZ employees are currently working on research and innovation projects that aim to transform organic waste into bioresources. A long-term effort that faces numerous challenges, since each type of waste demands a specific treatment. “We have to cope with the varying quality of the waste and the possible presence of contamination that is incompatible with the conversion processes and detrimental to their yield or the quality of the end product,” explains Benjamin Percheron. “We have to produce a proof of concept (POC) before proceeding to the industrial phase. This involves testing several ideas on a small scale (experimental POC) and then guaranteeing their applicability on a larger scale (demonstrative POC).”

Benjamin Percheron adds: “Even if it takes several years to get there, we have a sufficient variety and quantity of raw materials to build large-scale production units. Every day, we work on defining the best technical conversion processes and identifying the best partners in order to build these environmental biorefineries.”

Marion Crest is optimistic about the future of these new solutions. “SUEZ vision consists of considering waste as new resources to supply the circular economy, and not as refuse to be disposed of. I find it very exciting to contribute to this paradigm shift! There are countless long-term benefits. The development of environmental biorefineries producing bio-sourced molecules from secondary raw materials will limit the use of fossil resources, reduce our consumption of the biosphere and favour the use of arable land to produce food. It’s a means of combating global warming and the increased scarcity of natural resources. The day when this waste acquires a positive monetary value, we will be able to claim that our vision has become a reality!”

“Bioforever” is one of the CIRSEE’s emblematic waste recovery projects. This research and innovation programme, sponsored by the European Union as part of the Horizon 2020 programme and involving 14 European companies, including SUEZ, is looking into different processes to convert waste from the wood industry. Today, wood is used mainly to manufacture objects, furniture and paper pulp, or to produce energy. But it is also possible to extract from it several useful components (lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose) that can be used to produce chemicals with lubricating, surface-active, nutritional or energetic properties. Which is the reason why researchers are particularly interested in wood and wood waste.

Welcome to the BioResourceLab

These ambitious projects demand significant human and technical resources. Which is why SUEZ is building a brand new R&I centre, the BioResourceLab, that should be operational in 2020. The new centre will be located at the heart of the “Écopôle” in Narbonne, France, in the immediate vicinity of an ultra-modern waste sorting and recovery centre with an annual capacity of almost 90,000 tonnes. Its future missions will consist of developing the means of recovering organic waste as bioresources (biomolecules, biofertilisers, biomaterials and bioenergy) using new physical, chemical and biological processes.

These worldwide projects will involve international scientific communities, academic institutions and start-ups. The BioResourceLab will gather a multitude of different profiles, from waste management specialists, to experts in microbiology and biotechnologies, chemists, agronomists, industrial process engineers, business developers and marketeers. “This synergy will be necessary for this initiative, and the projects it develops, to succeed,” explains Marion Crest, who will be in charge of SUEZ new research and innovation centre.

 

This article was published in the sixth issue of open_resource magazine : “Towards a bio-inspired future

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