South Africa creates biorefinery consortium to study waste biomass

P&PC Staff
September 20, 2018
By P&PC Staff
September 20, 2018 - South Africa has established a biorefinery research consortium (BRC) to create new value chains from waste biomass.

The republic's Department of Science & Technology (DST) announced the BRC as part of a partnership between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of the Witwatersrand, and Sekolong Sa Dimelana, a rural-based bio-enterprise.

The consortium will investigate opportunities for the beneficiation of waste byproducts, such as sawdust from the forestry, timber, pulp and paper industries, and on finding alternative and innovative uses for the waste and diverting it from landfills. This will have both economic and environmental benefits.

The BRC will use the recently launched the $37.5 million (rand) Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) at the CSIR's Durban campus. In its initial phase (2018 to 2021), the consortium will focus on the revitalization of the forestry, timber, pulp and paper industries. The BIDF supports innovation in a range of industries, including forestry, agroprocessing and other biomass-based industries. Currently, biorefinery technology in South Africa's pulp and paper industry is practised on a very limited scale. Most wood, pulp and paper waste ends up in landfill sites or is burnt, stockpiled or even pumped out to sea.

Ben Durham, chief director of bioinnovation at the DST, says the consortium was conceptualized with a strong emphasis on the full value chain approach, coordination and technology transfer, by providing broad access to technical expertise and the biorefinery demonstration infrastructure that the BIDF provides.

The BIDF has developed a novel process to produce cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) directly from wood sawdust, without the need for the conventional pulping and bleaching processes that are currently used to isolate CNC from wood.

Cellulose nanocrystals are nanoparticles that have impressive optical, rheological and mechanical properties comparable with stainless steel, and have widespread applications in the automotive, construction, paper, medical, food, environmental and industrial sectors, among others.

According to the CSIR chief scientist at the BRC, Professor Bruce Sithole, CNCs are high-value materials that currently sell for approximately US$1,000 per kilogram. They are typically produced from high-purity wood-derived cellulose products such as microcrystalline cellulose, so producing CNC from wood sawdust is an achievement.

The CNCs produced at the BIDF will be used by other consortium members for downstream development of various CNC-based products, such as high-performance composites for packaging and construction applications, biopolymers for water filtration and biomedical applications, as well as biobinders produced from sawdust and castor oil.

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