Future feedstocks

A sustainable bioeconomy relies on a constant supply of sustainable feedstocks. There needs to be enough feedstock available for the various processes and they need to be economical to acquire. To do this, it is necessary to first understand the biomanufacturing feedstock landscape in the north-west in terms of supply, demand, and composition, before solutions can be found.

  • Biomanufacturing could help us tackle anthropogenic waste (including agro-industrial and forestry resides, food waste, minicpal solids waste, industrial off-gas, and agricultural slurry and sewage) by using it as a feedstock for industrial processes.

  • Current waste management processes are not set up to valorise waste.
  • It could be too hard for consumers to sufficiently sort their waste to ensure consistency in the feedstocks, especially if waste management infrastructure is inconsistent.
  • Current feedstocks are vaguely described and are subject to seasonal variability which impacts upon biomanufacturing processes.
  • There may be conflicting priorities for utilising biomass for energy or sustainable aviation fuel.

Feedstock availability and quality

As with any business, one of the main drivers for the adoption of new technologies is cost. Biomanufacturing is no exception and the cost associated with the feedstock materials comes up as one of the main challenges. However, alongside this there are other considerations around which feedstocks would be sustainable including availability, composition, consistency, and security of supply.

These factors are interconnected and create a complex picture when assessing the feedstocks landscape in the north-west. It also raises issues around how the feedstocks could be graded to ensure fungibility.

Turning waste into "wealth"

The promise of biomanufacturing is the potential to use biomass and anthropogenic waste streams as feedstocks for industrial processes. However, our current waste management is not structured in a way that will realise the value of this rubbish. It would take a holistic educational approach to show companies and consumers how their waste could be used in sustainable manufacturing to engender the change needed to ensure a steady feedstock supply.

One way this educational process could begin would be to show purchasing and sales teams the opportunities available through using their waste as feedstocks. For example, representatives from the brewing industry indicated that one-third of their waste could be used to carbonate their beer, whereas the remaining two-thirds could go into a resilient waste network. However, craft breweries are not often co-located and so linking them together to ensure waste re-use is a challenge.

For the consumer, it would be as simple as making sure it’s easy and clear on how to separate household waste so that it can be taken away and used in biomanufacturing. But, without the right infrastructure in place this system could be hard for people to achieve, especially if waste management is not consistent across the country.

Even if waste were consistently separated, ensuring uniformity within that waste is a challenge, and this can have a knock-on impact on the end-user. Impurities and seasonal variations will be common, as seen in the brewing industry where grains in their recipes differ for different seasons. This, combined with the fact that bio-feedstocks are often vaguely described by suppliers, means that there can be massive impacts on the biological systems within a manufacturing process.

Learnings from anaerobic digestion

Society already makes use of anaerobic digestion to recycle waste and produce useful bioproducts such as biogas. This industry has gone some way to solving the waste variability issue by implementing a sampling mechanism that is used to test the quality of the feedstock before it is fed into the bioreactor. Alongside this, the industry also has in place quality protocols to ensure that products meet the needs of the end user. For example, any fertilisers that are produced meet the needs of farmers.

To tackle the potential inconsistency in feedstocks, the biomanufacturing industry could consider blending and optimising the waste streams.

Incentivising change

To realise a sustainable biomanufacturing industry, there need to be key elements in place that drive the change. This usually takes the form of consistent, clear, underpinning regulations and legislation and business incentives that help smooth the transition. This pathway has already been forged in the automotive industry with the switch to electric vehicles, and so another coordinated investment strategy for the chemical industry could also be devised.

Future solutions

To address these challenges, several actions could be taken:
  • Map the current residual carbon and waste streams to identify priority areas and suitable management action plans.
  • Scale-up the infrastructure including biorefineries to ensure waste streams can be effectively managed.
  • Develop a consistent pre-treatment process in conjunction with stratification to identify the correct feedstocks for the relevant microorganisms so that value-added products can be made.
  • Create a programme of change to support the industrial transition, underpinned by government regulation and business incentives.

This foresighting workshop was made up of 16 participants from different stakeholder groups: academics, specialty chemicals, biorefinery, anaerobic digestion and biogas, climate change research, biosurfactants manufacture and independent breweries.

This article was put together by Ling Li Boon and Dr Neil Dixon.