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Refining plant products for green chemicals and fuels

There are currently 34 existing or planned biorefineries in Europe and 45 biorefinery research projects or pilot plants. EU-funded researchers evaluated the present and future of biorefinery concepts and made specific recommendations for policy initiatives to enhance European awareness and competitiveness.


Biomass is organic material from living or recently living plants and animals. In turn, a biorefinery produces useful biologically-based products and by-products, such as chemicals and fuels, from biomass with negligible carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The ‘Assessment of biorefinery concepts and the implications for agricultural and forestry policy’ (Biopol) project was designed to evaluate innovative technical, social, environmental and policy concepts implemented by biorefineries with the goal of guiding future policy impacting biorefinery development. The investigators focused on four main classes of biorefineries. Green biorefineries use wet, green biomass such as green grass and clover. Lignocellulosic feedstock biorefineries use dry raw material from cellulose-containing biomass such as reeds and wood. Whole crop biorefineries use crop plants such as cereals or maize as raw materials. Finally, two platform biorefineries combine the sugar (biochemical) and the syngas, or synthesis gas (thermo-chemical), platform to produce chemicals and fuels such as ethanol, methanol and polymers. Next, they selected four industries that could successfully implement biorefinery concepts to develop new products with potential for economic benefits: chemical, pulp and paper, starch and sugar, and biofuels. The investigators used a biomass supply model to investigate four different scenarios for future biorefinery development. The main conclusions were that the EU has sufficient biomass to meet renewable energy standards and climate policy, second generation technologies for sustainability can produce considerable quantities of valuable non-energy by-products, and large-scale implementation of biorefineries concepts would decrease costs and prices. Among the researchers’ policy recommendations were eco-labelling of bio-based products explaining environmental advantages to consumers, a ‘polluter pays’ principle by which companies favouring petroleum-based products would in essence help finance biorefineries and policy initiatives that take into account not only food and energy products but also fibres, biochemicals and biomaterials. In conclusion, the Biopol project undertook an extensive analysis of the current state of biorefineries and future scenarios for biorefinery development, coming up with important recommendations for future research and policy in the field. Implementation of the outcomes should have important positive impact on European competitiveness, consumer awareness and the global environment.

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