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Wood-based Bio-refineries

Roger Kilburn 125

Wood-based Biorefineries

Roger Kilburn 125

The forthcoming ICF National Conference 2016 will look at the entire timber supply chain, including future markets for the booming UK timber industry. Providing an introduction to his presentation, conference speaker Roger Kilburn, CEO of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, Glasgow, focuses on the potential market for biorefinery products, making a compelling argument for the development of a wood-based biorefinery in Scotland. 

Weaning the chemical industry off fossil fuel based feedstocks is a challenge. The industry has 100 years of experience optimising processes and products around these feedstocks. Think of all the plastics, adhesives, coatings, detergents, personal care products and pharmaceuticals that are made from the basic petrochemical building blocks of ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene.

We all know that fossil fuels are finite; we just don’t know when they will run out. However, the problem with fossil fuels is not just their availability; environmental impact, climate change and politics are all considerations that are leading the industry to seriously look at new sources of raw materials and conversion processes to existing and new products.

These new raw materials must contain carbon. Nature does an excellent job of fixing atmospheric carbon (as carbon dioxide) via photosynthesis into solid carbon in the form of sugars, starches, celluloses, lignin and natural oils. For millennia humans have used the best land to exploit this phenomenon to provide food. An ever-expanding population implies that this imperative will become greater rather than smaller. The chemical industry needs to be looking for its feedstock outside of the human food chain.

High-value Uses for The Forest Resource

Our forests must be considered as a potential alternative carbon source for the chemical industry. Whilst demand for forestry products for construction grows steadily, the demand for printed paper is declining – creating an opportunity for alternative applications. To date, alternative uses for this product have focussed on chipping and burning it which is neither a high value nor high tech solution. Scotland is home to two thirds of the UK forest with output expected to rise to 12 million cubic metres by 2020, finding high value uses for this forestry resource could generate new and significant opportunities for the country.

Wood contains around 40% cellulose, 20% hemi-cellulose and 40% lignin. Last year the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) led a trade visit to Borregaard, a forward thinking Norwegian company, who have converted its former paper mill into a wood-based bio-refinery. The celluloses are separated and purified as raw materials for cellulose based chemicals. The lignin is sulphonated and sold as dispersants, binders and plasticisers. The vanillin is extracted and sold as a high value flavouring agent and whatever is left of the tree is burned to produce energy to run these processes. Borregaard is profitable but the world demand for these specialised products is limited.

A Future World Leader in Industrial Biotechnology

For wood-based biorefineries to work, alternative economic products must be found. It is relatively straightforward to convert the cellulose and hemi-cellulose to fermentable sugars. These can be used as feed for an ever growing number of fermentation based chemicals. However, to do this cost-effectively, higher value for the lignin component must be found. Lignin is a complex polymer that offers great promise if it could be broken down into smaller useful hydrocarbon building blocks. This is somewhat of a holy grail in industry and amongst academics. Perhaps we should be looking for further uses of lignin as a material in its own right – for its insulating properties, its inherent chemical stability and potential as a performance-enhancing additive.

The case for converting wood into chemicals is compelling for the reasons given above but the economics are not quite there yet. IBioIC is working to make this economic case more attractive through supporting research to valorise lignin and bring interested companies together. We are confident that within a decade we will have a high value wood based bio-refinery helping to make Scotland a world leader in Industrial Biotechnology.

Roger Kilburn will speak at the ICF National Conference 2016: The Timber Supply Chain – Dynamics and Opportunity, taking place on 27-28 April in Newcastle. Roger’s presentation, Biorefinery Products and the Fit with UK Supply, takes place on Day 2, Session 5, which looks specifically at future markets for wood and fibre. Visit for further information.

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