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Flagship demonstration of an integrated biorefinery for dry crops sustainable exploitation towards biobased materials production

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - FIRST2RUN (Flagship demonstration of an integrated biorefinery for dry crops sustainable exploitation towards biobased materials production)

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2019-06-30

The route towards the assessment of virtuous value chains based on the valorisation of underutilised crops needs a coordinated effort for overcoming some of the existing technological, legislative and commercial barriers. Some small scale examples already exist at EU level in realising biorefineries and many efforts have been spent in studying and developing high added value products by valorising currently agro-industrial resources; nevertheless the need for Europe is to demonstrate, on the large scale, the integration of processes for the production of biobased monomers and derived biobased materials by increasing processes yield and selectivity, optimizing the recovery of by- and co-products from the different process steps exploiting the synergy with the agricultural sector and leveraging investments at industrial scale. FIRST2RUN project intends to propose an answer to the aforementioned challenges, demonstrating (TRL8) the techno, economical and environmental sustainability at industrial scale of a first-of-kind value chain where low input and underutilized oil crops (i.e. cardoon) grown in arid and/or marginal lands and compatible with regional characteristics, are exploited for the extraction of vegetable oils to be further converted into bio-monomers (mainly pelargonic and azelaic acids) and esters for the formulation of bioproducts (biolubricants, cosmetics, bioplastics). By and co-products from the process will be valorised both for energy and feed for animals productions to increase sustainability of the value chain.
Cardoon crop has been successfully established at large scale through the involvement of around 80 farmers thanks to the establishment of a Framework Agreement with Coldiretti. Additional oil crops (safflower, high oleic sunflower) from low impact oil crops compatible with regional specifities have been also assessed at large scale.
An optimized low-input protocol for the innovative oil crops cultivation has been set-up and transferred to farmers through specific training sessions (around 170 farmers involved in training sessions both on new oil crops and application of innovative bioproducts for agriculture from First2Run value chain). Satellite and drones images interpretation methodology has been validated for monitoring the cardoon fields’ conditions and health.
New prototypes of cardoon heads were developed and validated for the harvesting of separated fractions (seeds and biomass), suitable for the Sardinian stony marginal lands allowing to increase the productivity from 0.92 to 2.7 ha/hour.
A breeding program for cardoon crops was carried out allowing to develop new hybrids of cardoon to improve the quality and quantity of the cardoon’s fractions. A specific Soil Organic Matter (SOM) model has been developed showing that by applying compost during the 1st and 4th year of cultivation the amount of SOM after 3 crop cycles (22 years) is expected to increase of about 6.6 ton/ha compared to the initial amount. Positive trend on SOM increase has been also verified on field even without compost application mainly due to growth of radical apparatus of cardoon.
Innovative oilseeds treatment technique was demonstrated allowing to obtain vegetable oils, proteic meal and active molecules.
An innovative selective hydrogenation reaction process of vegetable oil have been validated at pilot scale allowing to increase the content of mono unsaturation up to more than 75%.
New protocols and catalysts to obtain azelaic and pelargonic acid were developed and patented. In parallel alternative routes for the azelaic acid purification have been set-up and validated.
Biobased azelaic and pelargonic acid productions have been demonstrated at flagship scale in a plant of nominal size of around 25,000 ton/year reaching up to 14 kton/year of the nominal capacity, implementing engineering measures to overcome bottlenecks and increase energy efficiency.
Innovative chemical and enzymatic esterification protocols have been successfully validated and production of biobased cosmetic and lubricant esters in a plant of nominal size of around 10,000 ton/year has been demonstrated.
Building blocks and intermediates have been successfully validated into the formulation of compostable bioplastics, biolubricants and cosmetic products (3 value chains demonstrated).
In parallel, the lignocellulosic biomass obtained from the cardoon crop has been successfully validated towards the production of bioenergy and cardoon proteic meal has been successfully tested as feed for animals.
Cardoon oil meal, biodegradable in soil mulch films and biolubricants have been validated directly by farmers along the project.
A reduction of GWP and NRER related to the First2Run agro-industrial value chain have been estimated to be respectively around 63% and 46% compared to standard value chain for obtaining benchmark products.
A detailed exploitation plan has been shaped also taking into consideration the opportunity of fostering cooperation with farmers, SMEs and start-ups for increasing market opportunities.
New business models for the diversification of business opportunities in the farming context have been defined based on an innovative and replicable concept of Multipurpose Circular Farm catalysed by the biobased industry, which could implement – directly at the farming scale – low impact agricultural practices in marginal lands as well as not sophisticated technologies allowing to convert oil crops fractions and residues into a variety of new intermediates and bioproducts. Dialogue with key actors has been fostered. FIRST2RUN project and the related biorefinery model have been promoted at more than 150 events among conferences, workshops, seminars and exhibitions at national and international level, targeting different stakeholders group (more than 9000 outreached stakeholders).
The following innovations have been developed: i) a new prototype for cardoon harvesting ii) a low-input protocol for cardoon cultivation iii) a mechanical and chemical process for the extraction of vegetable oil from cardoon seeds enabling in parallel the obtaining of an oil meal suitable for its application as feed for animals iv) a systems for monitoring cardoon fields’ health and conditions based on satellite and drones data interpretation v) new hybrids of cardoon crops with improved characteristics in terms of quality and quantity of oils vi) formulation of new catalysts with low environmental impact to be applied for the conversion of vegetable oil into building blocks vii) formulation of different biobased esters through both chemical and bio-catalysis viii) valorization cardoon biomass for bioenergy production ix) formulation of innovative biobased plastics for different applications (mulching films, food packaging) x) validation of innovative pelargonate esters into biolubricants and cosmetic products.
Positive impacts on the local economy has been generated both in the agricultural and industrial sector. In particular, a framework agreement has been established with farmers’ association in order to set-up a win-win cooperation model. In parallel an old fossil based industrial plant in Porto Torres has been reconverted and further optimized to meet the scope of the biorefinery, generating new technical skills in the green chemistry sector. SMEs competences profiles for reinforcing the value chain and increase future potential exploitation have been identified.