Biorefineries are not a new concept; many traditional biomass conversion units such as the sugar, starch or pulp industry are classified as biorefineries, too. The transition to a bio-based economy is expected to bring up more advanced and complex (e.g. multi-platform) biorefinery systems producing both bio-based products and energy carriers in a highly integrated manner.
ifeu has been working on the environmental impacts of biorefineries since the 1990s and evaluated dozens of biorefinery concepts for bioenergy (e.g. biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas) but also bio-based products. According to IEA Bioenergy Task 42, ‘biorefining’ is the sustainable processing of biomass into a spectrum of marketable bio-based products (food/feed ingredients, chemicals, materials) and bioenergy (biofuels, power and/or heat). Providing a classification of biorefineries, VDI standard 6310 distinguishes the following biorefinery concepts:
- Sugar biorefineries
- Starch biorefineries
- Vegetable oil and algal lipid biorefineries
- Lignocellulose biorefineries
- Green biorefineries
- Synthesis gas biorefineries
Since the 2010s, a specific focus was put on lignocellulose biorefineries and algae biorefineries. Most often, life cycle assessment and sustainability assessment studies were performed.
In a lignocellulosic biorefinery, biomass in the form of annual and perennial grasses, agricultural residues (e.g., straw, bagasse, husks and shells, corn cobs), wood and woody biomass is converted into a series of products. ifeu has been working on the sustainability assessment of lignocellulosic biorefineries since the late 1990s, before the concept of second generation biofuels even existed. ifeu assesses the development of lignocellulosic biorefineries from the experimental stages to large-scale plants. Ifeu’s expertise helps to optimise the process development from a sustainability perspective, and shows both the disadvantages and risks along with the advantages and opportunities associated with the different concepts.
In the case of algae biorefineries, our analyses have accompanied the expansion and shift in utilisation concepts from lipid-based fuels to chemicals, food supplements as well as food and feed as part of the topic complex of algae and aquaculture for years.
With the eForFuel project (2018-2022), ifeu is for the first time balancing a so-called electrobiorefinery, which represents a technological advancement of biorefineries by adding (bio)electrochemical transformations. This combination of electrochemical and microbial material transformations opens up synergies that can have an impact on the entire process chain.