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miércoles, 21 de junio de 2017

Profile: Group of Applied Research in Biorefinery of the University of Alcalá

Some weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Centre for Applied Chemistry and Biotechnology (CQAB, acronym in Spanish) of the University of Alcalá (Madrid) and have an interesting talk with Sergio González Egido (Project Manager at the Chair on Environment) about the activities of the Group of Applied Research in Biorefinery and the situation of the biorefining sector in Spain. Currently, this group works in several projects using different processes of the thermochemical platform (thermal and microwave) to transform diverse biomass feedstocks into 2G biofuels and bioproducts. In this post, we are going to know more about the group, the biorefinery model that they are developing and one of the projects that they are working in.

The Group of Applied Research in Biorefinery

The group is formed by the merger of two units of applied research very active and with an expertise gained throughout more than 15 years: the CQAB and the Chair on Environment. It is leaded by the researchers Juan José Vaquero (Professor of Organic Chemistry) and Manuel Peinado Lorca (Professor of Plant Biology).

The CQAB was designed and created with the purpose of boosting the cooperation between the academic research groups and the chemical pharmaceutical sector. It started in 1998 under the designation of Pilot Plant of Fine Chemistry (PPQF, acronym in Spanish). Currently, activities related to biotechnology, biorefining and quality analysis are developed. It has 3,500 m2, 22 laboratories fully equipped and 3 industrial rooms. Also, the CQAB offers technical services of consultancy and training.

Figure 1. Photography of a part of the CQAB facilities

The Chair on Environment is focused on carrying out life cycle analysis and studies on carbon footprint for different sectors, comparing several feedstocks and products. Moreover, reports of quantification of forest and agricultural biomass and wastes have been prepared for many years.

The new Group of Applied Research in Biorefinery of the University of Alcalá has join all these resources and experience to be very active in the biorefining sector and the field of the rural development. They are working with a wide range of feedstocks, among them, MSW, sludge from water treatment, forest and agricultural biomass and wastes from green fields and gardening. If we talk about urban wastes, they are also working hard in the chemical recycling of plastics. The group cooperates with the environment administrations and develops strategical advice for companies. Last works are centered on the field of circular economy through the drafting of action plans and specific laws.

Its biorefinery model

As it was commented before, the group investigates on the thermochemical platform. Specifically, it is focused on the pyrolysis oil platform (if you want to learn more about this one and other platforms, press here). Generally, the thermochemical technologies are particularly interesting because of their excellent robustness for the utilisation of very complex feedstocks with a heterogeneous composition. This step allows to obtain intermediate relatively homogeneous.

Those are the characteristics of its biorefinery concept:
Lignocellulosic wastes
Pyrolysis oil (bio-oil) platfom
Thermal and catalytic microwave pyrolysis
Products and further valorization
Solid fraction: biochar
Permanent carbon storage and biofertilizers component.
Liquid fraction: Pyrolysis oil (bio-oil)

It is upgraded to obtain:
- 2G biofuels.
- Biobitumen. Substitute or complement of fossil bitumen as asphalt binder with better performance from a thermal point of view and with an environmental footprint very positive.
Condesate of the pyrolysis vapors: “wood vinegar”
Substitute of herbicides, phytosanitary products and pesticides in sustainable agriculture. Also, it can be used as a starting point for fermentation processes.

Figure 2. Some of the bioproducts obtained in the biorefinery model proposed by the Group of Applied Research in Biorefinery of the University of Alcalá

Highlighted project

The group is demonstrating its biorefinery concept through one of the projects that is involved in. Hereafter, the most relevant information about this project is summarized.

Generation of advanced low-carbon bioproducts by the transformation of wastes and biomasic byproducts.
To demonstrate the economic and environmental feasibility of using lignocellulosic residues as source to obtain high-added value bioproducts in the field of the thermochemical biorefineries (catalytic pyrolysis).
RETOS-COLABORACIÓN 2016 (funded by the “Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad de España” and cofunded by the European Union). Identification Number: RTC-2016-5823-5.
- Group of Applied Research in Biorefinery.
- University of León (experts in the agricultural use of the biochar).
- Neoliquid Advanced Fuel and Liquid (Technology Base Company of the thermochemical biorefining sector).
- Biomasa Peninsular SA (biomass management company, provider of biomass for the project).
- Grupo Layna (waste management company, provider of RSU for the project).
1,175,873 € of total budget. The public funding rises to 697,095 €.
Start date: 10/03/2016.
End date: 31/12/2019.

The partnership operates two catalytic pyrolysis plants at industrial and preindustrial scale with operating capacities of 1 t/hour and 1 t/day, respectively. The lab equipment allows to carry out pyrolysis trials from 100 to 1,000 g/hour. All this set of facilities enables the experimental scale-up from lab to industrial level.

Together with the aforementioned biobitumen and wood vinegar, several bioproducts based on the use of biochar as matrix are being studied during the project:
- Biofer-char
Solid-state biofertiliser for agricultural crops. The biochar finally divided and sieved is used as carrier of a liquid biofertiliser consists of a pure crop (or a mixture of pure crops) of bacterial of bacteria selected by their PGP (Plant Growth Promotion) properties.
- Biochar +
Biochar with digestate from anaerobic digestion.
- Compost plus
It is a carbocompost with Biofer-char as biochar.

Also, biological technologies are being studied to improve the use of sugars generated in the thermochemical process because of the cracking of cellulose and hemicellulose. The biotechnological via allows to obtain other bioproducts as acetic and succinic acids.

Currently, the first experimental results are being obtained at lab and pilot scale.

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