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A global approach for recovery of arable land through improved phytoremediation coupled with advanced liquid biofuel production and climate friendly copper smelting process

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Phy2Climate (A global approach for recovery of arable land through improved phytoremediation coupled with advanced liquid biofuel production and climate friendly copper smelting process)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-06-30

Land availability is a critical and limiting factor for the global biofuel production from energy crops, especially in regions with high population density like in Europe. Land is a finite resource and the main competitors are Feed, Food & Fuel. From the available worldwide arable land almost 2/3 is dedicated to animal feed, less than 1/3 to food and only small share to biofuels. The multiple uttered food vs fuel debate is actually a food vs feed debate. On the one hand, the increasing land demand for energy crops leads to direct and indirect Land Use Change (iLUC), causing deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and vital water resources. On the other hand, there is a significant area of land which is contaminated and therefore unusable for any purpose. Soil pollution is omnipresent and in Europe about 2.5 Mio suspected sites exist, of which about 600,000 are officially registered. Even worse, the exploration, registration as contaminated site as well as the management are very cost-intensive. Soil pollution degrades major ecosystem services provided by soils. This directly affects human and environmental health, and it reduces food and water safety. The method of phytoremediation consists of the use of plants and their associated microbes to stabilize, degrade, volatilize and extract soil pollutants. While it is considered a cost-effective and environmentally friendly method, there has been still no significant commercial application demonstrated. One of the most important remaining hurdles is the disposal of large amounts of contaminated (e.g. heavy metals) biomass which is currently treated as waste and end up in incineration plants or disposed in landfills, an economic unattractive option. The lack of innovation in the utilization of contaminated biomass is evident and is fully addressed in the project. The Phy2Climate approach synergistically interlinks the remediation of contaminated soil with the production of added value products applying a thermo catalytic biorefinery process. The overall objective is to build a bridge between the phytoremediation of contaminated land with the production of clean drop-in biofuels without iLUC. Phy2Climate will decontaminate lands from a vast variety of pollutants and make the restored lands available for agriculture, while improving the overall sustainability, legal frame and economics of the process.
The project approach combines various aspects and technologies in an innovative and synergistic way and consists of a technical part, which is the phytoremediation and the conversion of the generated biomass into biofuels and bio-coke as well as a non-technic part including the legal, the business and the life cycle assessment.
Within the first project period all pilot sites in the different countries all over the world have been comprehensively analysed and prepared for kicking off a 3.5 years lasting on-site campaign. Pot test experiments have been carried out varying several process parameters such as e.g. crop species, amendments or soil conditioners to find out the best site-specific phytoremediation strategy. To convert the harvested biomass into added value products a pilot biorefinery plant based on a thermo-catalytic process including a gas cleaning unit, a Gas-to-Liquid plant and an electrooxidation unit was designed, built and commissioned. Additionally, a gas compressor was designed and purchased to be able to store the purified TCR gas and the generated hydrogen at high pressure in order to use it in the Gas-To-Liquid plant for the synthesis of liquid biofuels.
The research work on legal aspects carried out so far has consisted in desk-based literature and report reviews and fundamental legal research related to the identification of specific areas of law that require further inquiry for future in work and the categorisation of relevant legal barriers and opportunities for the project’s value chain.
The research work on business and market aspects has consisted in spanning and analysing a realistic value chain including all relevant and potential stakeholders. The drafting and validation of several business models for individual chain links led to a well understanding of interconnections and potential opportunities for the development of an overall business model. In the field of life cycle assessment and social acceptance of the technology and approach used, respectively, the overall and specific goals as well as the scope was defined. In addition, a methodology for a social acceptance toolkit was set up.
To properly disseminate and communicate project results and activities different material such as press releases, newsletters, project videos was constantly produced and published on various channels and platforms such as on the project website, YouTube or twitter.
The project clearly contributes to the state of the art as well as goes beyond since it demonstrates a novel holistic approach following the circular economy principles by using energy crops adapted to different pedoclimatic conditions for phytoremediation as well as to valorise the contaminated biomass after harvesting for biofuel and bio-coke production. For the first time the generation of syngas resulting from a thermo-catalytic conversion process followed by a GtL process at pilot scale will be linked. The simultaneous production of hydrogen while purifying the aqueous phase is an absolute novelty. Knowledge on energy crops applied for phytoremediation and on possible effects of amendments application on both phytoremediation efficiency and biomass production will be generated and allowing for the first time to determine the economic revenue provided by the proposed phytoremediation strategy by linking the characteristics of each site with the quality of the produced biofuels and bio-coke. By identifying and analysing all relevant bottlenecks arising in the legal framework governing each step of the Phy2Climate value chain, the project aims to produce a comprehensive appraisal of the current regulatory framework and provide effective recommendations de lege ferenda. The work carried out so far has already advanced the state of the knowledge by providing a systematic view of the relevant barriers arising in the existing regulatory regimes, which must be overcome to foster the uptake of phytoremediation in combination with the production of drop-in biofuels. Possibilities of turning the Phy2Climate approach into an economically viable business model are clearly given. Aspects such as the fragmentation of sites, the different interest of stakeholders or logistics are challenging but can be overcome especially on a long-term perspective. For the first time, the LCA will assess the environmental effect of contaminated land restoration by phytoremediation followed by advanced drop-in biofuel production. The definition of goals and scope of an LCA for a complex and multi-effect system goes beyond the state of the art. Dissemination of high-level technical progress take place through scientific peer-review research papers published in OA journals, as well as by taking part to leading academic and industrial conferences. Of particular importance will be the direct engagement of relevant stakeholders through events, seminars and demonstration days on the specific sites, which will be used as exemplars of the technology’s operational advantages and benefits.