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Biomass processing technologies: constantly innovating

The transformation processes and technologies applied to biomass are one of the keys to a successful bioeconomy. Improving their performance is a key activity for the scientists, start-ups, manufacturers and other players in the innovation ecosystem of the IAR cluster.

Whatever its origin and destination, the biomass to be transformed is subjected to a whole chain of chemical, mechanical, biotechnological and thermochemical processes, applied separately or in combination, which makes it possible to pre-treat, fractionate, extract, separate, filter, purify, etc. These operations are particularly delicate insofar as biomass is a living, rich and heterogeneous material, contributing both towards its value and complexity. In order to be able to make the best use of all its components, certain processes, notwithstanding their proven fossil product applications, must be adapted to biomass characteristics and to all the operational constraints linked to the target markets.

“The basic challenge, in particular for plant biomass transformation, is to have clean and safe processes that do not destroy the biological properties of the constituents. But they also have to be proven in terms of efficiency, reduction of energy consumption and environmental protection. All the more so when we aim, as with cosmetics, for natural labels whose specifications sometimes exclude certain transformations “, suggests Jacky Vandeputte, Scientific Director, Bioeconomy Innovation at the IAR cluster. “The cluster partakes in a process intensification strategy which is defined by ” producing much more and better while consuming much less “, by combining existing equipment and key future technologies for designing the factory of the future, with a significant reduction in raw materials and energy consumption, as well as investment (CAPEX) and operating (OPEX) costs. ”

Scale-up of key processes and technologies

Anxious to support these necessary changes, IAR takes a close look at innovative technologies and shares this knowledge through their network.  For example, some technologies that have caught their eye include;  electrostatic spray drying of microalga to preserve nutrients and pigments; the use of ozone in preference to chlorine to “de-bacterize” an agri-food product; improved sugar extraction yield from beet by pulsed electric fields, or indeed supercritical CO2 extraction and centrifugal partition chromatography allowing very fine separation of the molecules present in the plant.

So, how to ensure technology transfer from lab bench to industry?

“In such essential upscaling, public and private platforms play a crucial role, emphasises Jacky Vandeputte. To minimise things slipping through the net, we use research observatories and technology scanning to keep abreast of developments and ensure we are always at the cutting edge of latest innovations.

In 2018, the IAR cluster created BIOKET, the 1st international conference dedicated to these innovative processes and technologies, with the desire to bring together all players in the value chain, sharing knowledge of the latest innovations and presenting latest advances in state-of-the-art equipment. The next BIOKET is supported by several partners of the cluster including Genopole and the University of Lille.

Genoscope -CEBB: the seeds of a collaboration

Mainly oriented towards biotechnologies and the study of genomes, the Genopole biocluster in Evry has made synthetic biology one of its major areas of specialty, developed within the Genoscope laboratory (National Sequencing Center). If the United States is at the forefront, France has made great strides since the 2000s in this new science. At the crossroads of several disciplines (biology, computer science, physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc.), it allows the creation of complex biological systems and lays the basis for major advances in the fields of health, energy, materials, but also agri-food and the environment.

Genopole recently built a bridge between Genoscope and the European Center for Biotechnology and Bioeconomics (CEBB) through its four chairs. “It is a desire on our part to get closer to agro-industrial players, particularly within the IAR cluster,” explains Roxane Brachet, scientific and academic development officer in the Research & Platforms Department of Genopole. Since their first meeting in May 2019, the two entities have discussed their fields of expertise and technical platforms versus their respective needs, as a prelude to identifying a collaboration opportunity across two specific axes: the analysis of genomes and improved detection capabilities of new metabolic pathways. The aim, in both cases, is to optimize the process of biomass transformation and to better understand the functioning of ecological systems.

This emerging partnership has already resulted in a co-supervised doctoral project, the writing of a first article on the analysis of genomes in microbial populations and the submission of a joint research project to the ANR relating to the enzymatic synthesis of lactams, currently in the final phase of evaluation. The connection formed by Genoscope and the CEBB could open up in the future to targeted economic players, as, as pointed out by  Ms. Brachet: “We are in sectors where it is important not to remain closeted between researchers but to interact as early as possible with the wider business world.”

UCCS: operating in the biorefinery value chain

Another world-class player in the IAR ecosystem, the Solid Catalysis and Chemistry Unit (UCCS) * works on the transformation of biomass from several approaches: lignin functionalisation, polymerization, the valuation of platform molecules, etc. Allied to this, a transversal “logic and philosophy” approach is applied, being a highly innovative approach in the context of a chemistry laboratory.

It is in this context that a constellation of cutting-edge projects and platforms is being developed, including REALCAT. Specialized in high throughput screening for catalysts, this platform has an assembly of biotechnology and chemical catalysis equipment, truly unique at the global level. “We mainly convert platform molecules into high added value intermediate chemicals that find applications in a wide variety of markets: cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints, solvents, etc.”, outlines Franck Dumeignil, Director of UCCS. To date, REALCAT has raised more than € 12 million in contracts (and nearly € 10 million in loans and grants), generated 6 patents and over 60 publications, trained around 100 students and created a start-up (Teamcat Solutions).

While UCCS is interested in catalysis in all its forms, it is actively working on new concepts such as hybrid catalysis. “We are pioneers at the global level of this interdisciplinary integration between chemical catalysis and biotechnological catalysis, Dr. Dumeignil explains. In a refinery, you have biotechnology stages with intermediates that are isolated and sent to chemical catalysis stages in different reactors. What we are doing is to bring them together in the same reactor, which is highly complex because of compatibility issues between systems derived from living organisms and artificial chemical systems. But we’re getting there. “While the maturity of this technology is still low, UCCS is launching dedicated projects on hybrid catalysis, for which it predicts an industrial future within 10 years.

* Joint research unit of the CNRS, the University of Lille, Centrale Lille and the University of Artois

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