From wood waste to useful chemicals, the future of the bioindustry?

This week our blog comes from Dr Florence Gschwend of the Department of Chemical Engineering. She was the latest speaker at our weekly seminar series, discussing her work converting waste biomass materials for use in the chemical industry and her company Chrysalix Technologies, which is commercialising the research.

The continuing struggle against climate change, and the issues surrounding dependence on fossil-fuels affect many aspects of everyday life. Work towards renewable electricity and transport is progressing rapidly, with wind and solar becoming cheaper sources of electricity and a more viable alternative to fossil-fuel sources.

Solar panels in a field

These aren’t without issue, often generated intermittently, however storage and demand management are promising solutions (see for example Dr. Jacek Pawlak’s work). The progress in this area is not achieved just with technological progress; within government many countries having pledged to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles over the next decades, and investment into solar and wind farms are increasing. Even on a consumer level electric car sales are rising, as people become more environmentally conscious.

Despite this era of change within the energy sector there are still many areas the petro-chemical industry continues to hold its grip on society. The on-going war between beverage consumers and plastic cups with soggy paper-straws plays its part. Getting rid of all plastics isn’t an easy solution, and plastic use can result in environmental gains, for example replacing materials such as glass and metals which are much heavier, leading to increased transport emissions.

Paper straws

The use of bioplastics could be the answer, and it looks like it’s happening, with cups telling you “I’m not a plastic cup, I’m 100% compostable”, despite plastic being an independent property from biodegradability (and the cup still being plastic, but we’ll save this for a different discussion). However, the share of bio-plastics on the market is decreasing as the oil-based plastics industry is booming. 2018 saw bioplastics at less than 1% of plastics produced. A report from the Ellen MacArthur foundation predicts overall plastic production will increase from 311 million tonnes in 2014 to 1.1 billion tonnes by 2050, making up 20% of global oil production.

The area of the petrochemical industry much forgotten by the wider public is the chemical industry. The “stuff” that goes into everything from roads, textiles, processed foods, paints, glues, pharmaceuticals, detergents to cosmetics. Fossil-fuel derived chemicals make up 90% of the chemicals market. So, as we move away from oil for energy, transport and plastics, an alternative needs to be found for all the other oil derived products.

Factory on a riverbank

This isn’t just about finding more sustainable starting materials. Feedstock sourcing, conversion, production, recycling, recovery and ultimately disposal processes all need to be considered as we design for this new bio-economy. Going up against the highly optimised oil industry, that’s had 150 years to develop near 100% efficiency, big ideas are needed. Oil is abundant, and to find a replacement something abundant is needed.

Wood waste

Lignocellulose is the most abundant renewable matter on Earth. It comes from wood, grasses, shrubs and agricultural waste. Growing from the plains of Siberia down to the southern tip of Argentina, growing mostly without fertilizers or pesticides. Its been used for over a century to produce paper and textile fibres such as viscose and Rayon, but in order to make lignocellulose a viable alternative to crude oil, new cheaper and cleaner conversion technologies are needed.

This is where Chrysalix Technologies and the BioFlex process come in. Within Imperial College’s Chemical Engineering Department, Professor Jason Hallett’s group developed a new chemical process that uses low-cost and environmentally friendly solvents that convert various lignocellulosic materials into high quality, low-cost inputs for the renewable chemicals industry.

The founding team of Chrysalix comprises various academics from Imperial College London, including Professor Jason Hallett and Dr Agi Brandt. The innovation of this process comes from the combination of using a low-cost and recyclable solvent and a process with unprecedented flexibility of feedstocks that can be used. Using waste materials from other processes like sugarcane bagasse, sawdust, and industrial waste wood result in economic and environmental gains; these materials currently get burned, resulting in air pollution without capturing significant value. Instead, we transform it into new input materials for other industries.

Using waste also means there is no need for increased biomass production or deforestation, or competition with food to obtain the feedstock.  The solvent used in the BioFlex process is a liquid salt, aka Ionic Liquid. Ionic liquids don’t evaporate, making for low pressures and no harmful fumes, overall leading to a safer process. The process allows for the treatment of different input materials, including ones which cause problems for other, existing processes.

Some of the founders of Chrysalix Technologies, Professor Jason Hallett, Dr Agi Brandt and Dr Florence Gschwend
Some of the founders of Chrysalix Technologies, Professor Jason Hallett, Dr Agi Brandt and Dr Florence Gschwend

But the BioFlex process alone cannot take on the petro-chemical industry. The outputs of the process can lead to a variety of products, though many of these products are intermediates that still rely on other technologies to be transformed into a final product. Additionally, biomass products tend to be more oxygenated than their oil-derived counterparts. Depending on the application the added oxygen can offer advantages, but the chemicals industry will need to develop different technologies to handle more oxygenated chemicals.

With a huge shift in the future, away from fossil-fuels and towards a fully renewable economy, the development of new innovative processes for the production of bio-derived alternatives is more necessary than ever before. There are still difficulties when competing with such an established and efficient industry like oil, but sustainable and environmentally-conscious ways to harness abundant lignocellulose can offer a viable replacement to oil and its derivative materials.

Dr Florence Gschwend

Dr Florence GschwendFlorence studied Chemistry in Switzerland and the UK before obtaining her PhD from Imperial College London. Her thesis explored the potential to improve the economic viability of the use of low-cost ionic liquids in wood biorefining. Specifically she investigated cheap waste feedstocks and in particular metal treated and/or contaminated waste wood.

Since finishing her PhD she has co-founded Chrysalix Technologies, a spin-out company from Imperial College seeking to commercialise the ionic liquid-based fractionation technology. Dr Gschwend is now working full-time for Chrysalix as the CEO.

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