Discarded potentials of biomass

Program Programme Programme »Potential of biomass for development of advanced materials and bio-based products«

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Strategic direction of the programme is to exploit the potential of biomass for development of advanced materials and bio-based products, by creating new value chains for cascading utilisation of biomass. The programme is placed within priority area S4 (Slovenia’s Smart Specialisation Strategy) - The natural and traditional resources for the future, Networks for the transition to the circular economy, and is co-financed by EU Structural Funds in Slovenia. It comprises all of the identified focus areas and technologies: technologies for development of new bio -based materials, technologies for utilisation of secondary raw materials, and technologies for reuse of waste and production of energy from alternative sources.
Product directions follow ambitious goals of CEL.CYCLE Consortium to develop an array of competitive bio-based products, thus answering to demands for more efficient utilisation of raw materials and reduction of environmental burdens. With synergies arising from cross-sector partnership, which represent comprehensive value chain for material and energy utilisation of biomass, the programme contributes to long-term competitiveness of an important part of Slovenian industry: chemical, textile, paper, wood processing and automotive industry, construction, engineering and energy.
Programme is a cooperation platform for top research teams mastering materials, chemical engineering, manufacturing and processing technologies, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Collaborating within new value chains helps us move beyond fragmentation and strengthens our capabilities to achieve international Excellency in research and technological development.

Programme encompasses 5 conceptual sections:

Valorisation of biomass potential and development of bio-based products: nanocellulose and green chemicals

Various types of primary and waste biomass represent a renewable raw material source with potential for production of commercially viable biopolymers such as nanocellulose and lignin, and bio-based compounds to replace the nowadays-prevailing non-renewable and environmentally burdensome fossil-based materials and compounds in different industries (paper, textile, polymer, automotive, construction, electronics, etc.).

In this section, partners focus on the following:

Comprehensive database for technologically important lignocellulosic biomass
What types of biomass are available and what are its characteristics? What are potentials of various biomass types for economical use of structural compounds and development of biomaterials?
To answer questions properly, a comprehensive database of different accessible types of biomass (wood, green pruning, annual plants, foreign invasive plants, lignocellulosic biomass waste from agriculture and industry, etc.). will be created, stating their characteristics and availability. A comprehensive overview of all available biomass (primary and secondary) evaluated for its morphological, physical, chemical and mechanical characteristics will define potentials of various types for economic use of structural compounds and development of bio-materials as end products (green chemicals, bio-polymers, extracts) or secondary materials for chemical, paper, textile and other processing industries. Database is a starting point for further research on procedures for production of marketable biomaterials and their further use in various products.

Development of advanced processes for fractionation of biomass and isolation of structural building blocks for bio-based compounds, applied in coating, resin and adhesive industries
Using renewable materials as replacement for fossil-based compounds represents a guiding development trend in today's industries. Our challenge here is the development of efficient, environmentally and economically acceptable procedures of biomass fractionation and isolation of its structural compounds, following principles of cascade utilisation.
Extraction, fractionation and processing of biomass using eutectic solvents (DES), is recognized as one of breakthrough technologies for exploitation of renewable resources (cellulose, nanocellulose and lignin) and production of secondary raw materials (green chemicals), thus enabling a systematic abandonment of fossil-based compounds in existing coatings, resins and adhesives.
Research will result in acquired knowledge, developed procedures and demonstration of production of three important step polymerization monomers from biomass, for the industry of coatings, resins and adhesives, and, finally, its further integration into existing products (paper and board, bio-composites).

Development of continued processes for production of (nano)cellulose from various types of biomass
Market and forecast studies demonstrate that nanocellulose market is practically unlimited. Development of processes and accompanied technologies happens extremely fast, whereas economic efficiency of production remains a single limitation. Slovenia has important comparative advantages in this field, not only availability of natural raw materials, there is also existing knowledge and competences in development of economically and environmentally efficient technologies.
Processes for isolation of nanocellulose with combination of mechanical and chemical procedures will be developed and optimized to ensure sufficient quantities of nanocellulose of suitable quality. The entire value chain is connected within the Programme, from knowledge-holders for development of processes, to potential producers of nanocellulose from residual biomass, all the way to the end users in various industries (paper, textile, polymer, automotive, construction).
This goal concludes value chain of the Section 1, and is further on tightly associated with value chains in other Sections, for development of final products, based on nanocellulose.

Development of advanced and multifunctional materials with integrated nanocellulose and environmentally acceptable additives: paper, board and yarn

Section 2 of the programme targets the development of advanced materials and products in primary chain of lignocellulosic fibres for production of paper, board and yarn. Objectives follow basic market trends and requirements, namely, development of new bio-based, non-toxic and biodegradable (compostable) products with multifunctional properties. This will allow partners for a competitive stand on the growing markets of advanced packaging and technical textiles.

Development of low weight paper with improved physical-mechanical properties
The goal is to develop low weight paper with the proportion of recycled fibres as high as possible, while maintaining and/or improving its physical-mechanical properties (specific volume, softness, higher whiteness, better printability…). Optimal formulations and process parameters for the production of low weight papers, which exceed characteristics of existing products on the market will be developed, using (modified) nanocellulose and (nano)particles in different forms. The formulations will be tested in real environment, involving all partners in the value chain - from suppliers, paper manufacturers to the end users.

Development of paper/cardboard with optimal barrier properties
Products constructed from fossil-based compounds and products containing hazardous matter (including also cellulose-based products) represent significant burden to the environment. Research focuses on the extraction processes of bio-based substitutes and development of coatings to provide paper/cardboard with target barrier properties for packaging purposes (oil and fat barrier, water vapour and/or oxygen barrier). Different coating formulations, optimized materials and processes for production of packaging materials will be developed, competitive to existing materials on the market that are entirely or partially made from fossil-based components.
Research represents an important know-how for all the partners within the chain. Result comprises of process and product specifications packages for targeted formulations, tested in real environment by the user.

Use of zeolites for improved sensory properties of materials
Volcanic rock Zeolite will be tested as a secondary material in production of cardboard with improved sensory properties. Here, the research focus is on modification of zeolites, which have the ability to absorb or inhibit odours and harmful volatile organic chemicals that might form within auto oxidation processes during cardboard production. The result will be a new, properly certified zeolite product, tested in real environment of cardboard for food packaging.

Paper with added sensor elements
Smart packaging is an important trend in packaging. Packaging with sensor elements serves to warn consumer about the suitability of the packaged product, it allows for better traceability of products in logistic chain and recording of the current conditions (temperature, humidity). This all is leading to cost savings and optimization of packaging for specific market requirements.
Specific goal, formed at this stage, is development of appropriate printed electronic elements, incorporated directly into packaging material or added in form of self-adhesive labels.
Result will be a self-adhesive label, based on radio frequency identification (RFID) with the addition of printed sensor element of various types, printed RFID antenna and RFID communication chip.

Development of yarns with functionalized fibres
The goal here is to develop yarns with functional cellulose fibres, which provide fire resistance, antimicrobial protection or could function as a repellent. Research focuses on the use of existing and new natural isolates (extractives, nanocellulose) and optimization of isolates-fibres binding processes, which will help us achieve desired functionalities. Result will be a prototype of yarn with fire resistance, antimicrobial protection or repellent function.

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Development of products with higher proportion of bio-based components and improved functionalities: construction, automotive, textile and electrical industry

Overall objective of Section 3 is development of new, environmentally friendly bio-composite materials with comparable or even better properties, compared to current commercially available ones. Materials are to be applied in an industrial setting. Emphasis will be on ensuring favourable ratio between weight of the novel materials and their superior mechanical properties, in combination with new functionalities. Construction-wise, materials will be based on renewable polymer matrix, reinforced with modified natural fibres. Facilitating the use of lignocellulosic mass in advanced technical composites will contribute to diminishing dependency to man-made polymers and eventually, lowering the carbon footprint. Development of bio-based filtering materials Development of bio-based filtering materials follows the need for a drastic reduction in solid-particle pollution, one of the largest health risks and state of the environment in developed countries. Filtering sector currently concerns itself primarily with removal and immobilization of ever-smaller particles, effectively requiring smaller pore sizes and enhanced surface area. Our research and development activities will address those concerns. Construction of 3D nonwoven with integrated active components (inorganic particles; micro- and nano-fibrillated cellulose) will result in formation of a filtering material with controlled porosity and active specific surface, applied and tested in a simulated working environment. Development of lightweight polymer composites for automotive industry Automotive industry trends points towards development of lightweight composite materials, which can help the industry to respond to increasingly stricter environmental standards. Research activities will focus on development of polymer composites with low- and high-temperature stability. Various lignocellulosic fibres will be added as an active component, to achieve desired mechanical properties and low mass (in macro-micro-nano order). In addition, fibres will be chemically modified and treated with bio-based modifying agents in order to improve interactions within a polymer matrix. Objective of these endeavours is fabrication of polymer composites with integrated lignocellulosic fibres for production of technically sophisticated automotive parts, with properties in-line with the market demands: competitively priced, lighter products, with a diminished effect on global warming, lower gas consumption and higher safety. Industrial prototype of a component of housing part, custom made for an industrial partner, will represent the result. Development of innovative cellulose-based battery separators One of the key issues in battery construction is an efficient and selective separation of anode and cathode. A substantial amount of work has been done in this field, yet currently available solutions are either not effective enough (polypropylene- or polyethylene-based separators) or are too expensive and exhibit deficiencies in mechanical properties (e.g. ceramic membranes). In this section of programme, the aim is to develop innovative separation materials, based on surface-modified nano-fibrillar cellulose (NFC). Sizeable active surface, excellent mechanical properties, non-toxicity and large capacity for surface functionalization make NFC an attractive material for advanced separators. Research activities will result in a prototype of battery separator on TRL6. Development of high-performance insulating materials Cellulose and cellulose-based materials possess, in addition to its environmental friendliness (one of the lowest amounts of embodied CO2 per kilogramme) excellent thermal and acoustic properties. Yet cellulose materials account for just a minor share of the materials on European insulation market, mainly because they are highly hygroscopic, flammable and prone to mould attacks. Improving these shortcomings would facilitate cellulose usage for insulation purposes in building sector, and help reduce the effect built environments and restoration procedures have on the environment. Objective of research activities is to develop thermal insulating boards, composed of natural lignocellulosic fibres. Combined with bio-based binders, such insulating boards will represent a new generation of environmentally friendly building material with low carbon footprint, and thus contribute greatly towards continuous development of passive buildings. Desired result is thermal insulating board of suitable dimensions, tested and validated in real working environment.

Development of procedures for biological and mechanical processing of solid waste into products with added value

The aim of Section 4 is to develop technologies for final processing and material utilisation of waste, and thus closing this comprehensive cycle of production and re-use of lignocellulosic material. Research focuses on exploitation of solid organic and inorganic waste, using combination of mechanical and biological treatments to achieve total material utilisation of waste, resulting in new value added products.
Removing lignocellulosic waste is a challenge for variety of industries, as it still generates significant costs. Therefore, we aim to develop procedures for bio processing of waste, generated through fractionalization of biomass and within fibre processing industry (biological sludge). Through cultivation of fungi, we will be able to isolate enzymes that can be used to improve industry processes, especially in paper recycling. Our activities will result in validated process parameters for enzyme production and utilisation.
Lastly, for efficient material utilisation of waste, waste generated from biological decomposition together with other usable waste from consortium partners (marine sludge, paper sludge, ash, de-inking sludge...), will be evaluated for further use in the construction sector. The result will be valorised assortments and homogenization of waste for further use in different products in construction sectors.

Development of innovative system for energy recovery from waste

Our goal is to develop a pilot low-power WtE (Waste to Energy) system for energy extraction from a wide array of waste materials with high water content (paper industry, wastewater plants, sewage dumps). System should prove useful for treatment of a vast spectre of waste materials. It will also demonstrate high efficiency, operating at low system power and in full compliance with environmental legislation.
Low system operating power is financially accessible investment; enabling processing of the waste locally, avoiding negative impacts on the environment and is thus representing a marketable niche product.
Result will be a pilot development of the following WtE system components: hydrodynamic cavitation pump for treatment of wastewater and process water, an advanced drying system and a combustion device. All components are marketable as single products and interesting for various industries. Integration of components into an innovative prototype WtE system will allow for simple scaling of the system, as well as technology transfer to various types of waste. Hydrodynamic cavitations’ technology will also be demonstrated for the use in papermaking process for fibre and waste treatment.

Process evaluation

As a horizontal activity of the programme, a parallel environmental assessment of processes, novel solutions and products is envisaged. All process phases are accompanied by impact evaluation, using the standardized Life Cycle Assessment methodology (LCA; ISO 14040 in 14044). The activity, inclusive for all partners, will also be intended for systematic promotion of environmental assessment as an increasingly important market communication tool. Based on the information from available databases and evaluation of the partners’ data for individual product group, models will be developed to consequently facilitate preparation of various scenarios and identification of systemic weaknesses along the whole value chain. Results of these activities shall provide us with a set of straightforward answers considering if, and to what extent, green products exhibit more favourable environmental parameters and subsequently economic parameters, in comparison to the established schemes.

Intersectoral and social networking with emphasis on local production circles – new value chains

This Programme sets a cooperation platform for top research teams mastering materials, chemical engineering, manufacturing and processing technologies, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and energy. They are joined by key experiential partners and industry end-users from chemical, textile, paper, wood processing and automotive industry, construction, energy and engineering.
Partnership within new value chains helps us move beyond fragmentation and introverted individual activities. It strengthens capabilities of Slovenian research and production sectors to achieve international excellency and to join international value chains as key link.
But focusing on effective utilisation of waste biomass also demands for a wider society, local economic and social environments to be involved. Their engagement in identification and collection of waste biomass resources are therefore an absolute necessity for effective implementation of bio-economy in Slovenia.
This programme represents a unique example of enforcing circular economy principles. By connecting various partners and value chains, following a common goal of effective cascade use of biomass as natural raw material, we aim to:
* reduce dependence on foreign sources of raw materials,
* replace fossil-based raw materials,
* establish efficient systems of closing materials loops,
* exploit opportunities on the growing market of green solutions,
* connect local competencies into innovative circular partnerships,
* strengthen local socio-economic relations,
* encourage society as a whole to act towards green co-existence and thus
* contribute significantly to reducing the burden on the environment.