Pre-treatment of biomass is essential for a number of biomass technologies. A promising technology is extrusion where several process steps can be carried out in one instrument. (Photo: Lise Balsby)
Non-food plants and plant residue can be used for more than just fuel. In addition to fuel, you can produce chemical building blocks for production of plastics as well as high-protein animal feed.
Aarhus University is participating in a new, large research initiative together with other Danish universities and leading companies. Within five years, they will create the knowledge required to strengthen the preconditions for producing a range of green products that are currently either imported or extracted from fossil fuels.
These products could include e.g. new sources of protein for animal feed and raw materials for many different chemicals and polymers. The biomass from which products must be extracted consists of crop residue, straw, grasses and other plant matter that do not compete with food production.
The research initiative has a budget of historical proportions –DKK 160 million. The aim is to create the technological progress that will enable Denmark to convert to a bio-based society and utilise the full potential of plants.
From grass to high-protein animal feed
When you produce bioethanol, there is the possibility of utilising the plant material to produce animal feed. Grasses and other perennial species of plant contain proteins that can meet the needs for amino acids of most large mammals. The challenge for research is to optimise the separation of the biomass into various components and remove those parts of the plants which are indigestible and which inhibit absorption of protein in the body.
The feed must be manufactured from fresh leaves in order to extract high-quality proteins. They can subsequently be upgraded and used as feed for calves, piglets etc.
Aarhus University has unique facilities for biomass production in Foulum as well as many hectares of land where it is possible to experiment with the cultivation of new crops with optimised properties for animal feed.
Furthermore, with existing facilities for production of feed and livestock as well as world class research in animal nutrition, it is an ideal place to establish a pilot plant for production of protein from green biomasses.
The researchers have already started on the first experiments though the technology will not be commercially ready for a number of years. However, it could then be a real viable alternative to imported soya feeds.
EU countries currently import more than 45 million tonnes of high-protein feed, which accounts for 70 percent of total requirements. The impact on the climate from the production and transport of the animal feed currently used is enormous. A greater degree of self-sufficiency will therefore make a positive contribution to Denmark’s environmental accounts.
Drive using manure and fly using wood
Hydrothermal liquefaction or bio-refining has the potential to become one of the most important energy technologies of the future. It is pivotal in the work being done to develop new methods for producing biofuels and in the conversion of organic materials into products that are presently extracted from fossil fuels.
Researchers from Aarhus University have developed a ground-breaking new process that effectively transforms all kinds of biomass into bio-crude oil that is comparable to crude oil from fossil fuels in all practical respects.
The method is able to exploit 85-90 percent of the energy content in the biomass, which is better than any known technology can achieve. What is more, it is not more expensive.
At the same time, the bio-fuel can be processed relatively easily into diesel, petrol or aviation fuel using the oil industry’s existing processing plants, or it can be used without further processing as e.g. bunker fuel in ships. Thus it is not necessary to adapt engines or use additives in the fuel to be able to use it in the transport sector.
The technology also has the advantage of being able to immediately process humid and wet biomass, which forms by far the majority of green resources found on earth such as sludge, fertiliser, wood and straw.
During the next few years, the method will be further developed and the production of oil will be tested in a planned pilot plant at AU Foulum.