“Cascade use and reuse/-cycling are important factors for the success of the bioeconomy, but the products need to be designed in an appropriate way for recycling. For sure, carbon storage in the material is a positive side effect, but I see this more as a leverage to increase competitiveness of bio-based products compared to fossil-based products, e.g. through a CO2tax for fossil-based products”. To say it – in this interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Andreas Kiesel, a researcher at the University of Hohenheim, who is coordinating the BBI JU Demo Project GRACE, “which is demonstrating the feasibility of 10 bio-based value chains for hemp and miscanthus biomass at an industry relevant scale”.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
The European Commission is working on the review of its bioeconomy strategy. What should be in your opinion the main pillars of the new strategy?
I think the main pillar should be sustainability – environmental, economic and social sustainability. Bioeconomy is a very broad field and not per se sustainable. For that reason, the Commission should make sure that all novel bioeconomy approaches are in line with the sustainability goals and fulfill the criteria of Circular and Green Economy.
Education and training are two issues being discussed a lot recently. From your point of view of researcher and teacher, what can actually do the European Union and the member states for involving the civil society?
There is already a lot of activity to involve the civil society, e.g. most of the new projects are using social media and launching their own project website. However, scientists and researchers, including myself, are still often not familiar with communicating their results to a broader public. Explaining complex issues in a simple way is not easy and should be part of the education at school and university level.
On European Level, the EU recently launched activities such as the Common Dissemination Booster, which is a step in the right direction, but this service just started and still needs improvement after this test-phase. Nevertheless, activities like this could help to make researchers and scientists more aware of the communication to a broader public.
The University of Hohenheim is involved in many projects of the BBI JU. You personally are the leader of GRACE. What are the objectives of this project and what are your partners?
I’m coordinating the BBI demonstration project GRACE, which is demonstrating the feasibility of 10 bio-based value chains for hemp and miscanthus biomass at an industry relevant scale. Each value chain will be demonstrated from the crop production until the final product and the environmental, social and economic sustainability of each value chain will be assessed during the project. The value chains include the production of Bioethanol (INA d.d.), platform chemicals (Bio-Butandiol, Azelaic Acid (both Novamont), HMF and Phenols (both AVA Biochem and University of Hohenheim)), building material (mycelium based panels MOGU), Particle Boards (CMF Greentech), insulation material (Gießereitechnik Kuehn) and lightweight concrete (Miscanthusgroep)), miscanthus-fibre reinforced composites (Addiplast), the bioherbicide pelargonic acid (Novamont) and non-psychotrophic Cannabinoids (Indena) from hemp threshing residues for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes. GRACE consists of a unique consortium of 22 partners from science, industry, SME, agricultural sector and an industry cluster.
Due to a different climate and agricultural system, Europe cannot grow crops which copy models in certain areas like Brazil which have historically produced sugar cane as biomass to be transformed into bioethanol fuel. From your point of view, will non-food industrial crops, such as miscanthus and hemp, and crop residues meet herbaceous feedstock demands for the new bioeconomy in Europe?
The situation in Europe is completely different to Brasil, not only due to climate, but also due to degree of industrialization and population density. I wouldn’t expect that each industrial region and country in Europe could produce enough feedstock for their own bioeconomy activities. However, if we look at whole Europe there should be enough area for industrial crops to produce a significant amount of feedstock for the European Bioeconomy without jeopardizing global food security, especially in the Eastern member states.
What are the different industrial fields of application of miscanthus and hemp?
Miscanthus is a typical lignocellulose crop which is used to produce miscanthus straw. Currently, the straw is used mainly for combustion, animal bedding or mulching (e.g. in horticulture). Novel approaches try to fractionize the straw into different products to create added value. This can be done mechanically, e.g. to separate the miscanthus parenchym from the fibers and utilize it as insulation material, or (bio-)chemically, e.g. by separating cellulose and hemicellulose from the lignin.
In contrast, the hemp plant is already some sort of an on-field-biorefinery, since it produces different products, such as seeds, fibers and secondary metabolites, mostly cannabinoids. The seeds contain oil with a high nutritional value, but hemp oil is only niche product in nutrition due to its high price. In consequence, if the cropping area of hemp is extended, novel, high-value applications for the hemp oil will be needed to justify separation during harvest. Nowadays, hemp is mostly grown for its fibers, but using only fibers and the low value byproduct shives, which is obtained during fiber extraction, make the fibers expensive. The idea is to find markets for more products, especially high-value markets e.g. cannabinoids in pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry, and to use each single fraction of the hemp crop. This helps to make the single product, e.g. the fibers, more competitive and ensures enough income for the farmers.
It is said that the cascading use of biomass, prioritizing material use before energy use is preferable as a climate change mitigation measure as the carbon stays stored in the material for a longer term and it substitutes non-renewable materials and fossil energy twice. In principle, the cascading use is also more resource efficient and economically beneficent. From your point of view, is cascading use of biomass a superior concept in the context of a sustainable bioeconomy?
I agree with the concept of cascading use and to prioritize material use for two reasons. First reason is producing biomass only for energy generation is often too expensive – we see this for biogas in Germany where biogas plants produce electricity from maize at costs of around 0.12-0.18 € per kWh, while electricity from wind and PV is around 0.05-0.08 € per kWh and declining further. So producing high value material from biomass and using the sidestreams for energy generation is crucial to make biofuels and bioenergy more competitive.
The second reason is the availability of biomass, which is not unlimited. If we want to replace a significant proportion of fossil-based plastic and fossil fuels by bioplastic/biomaterials and biofuels, we will not have enough cropping area to produce crops only for energy and other crops only for biomaterials. So cascade use and reuse/-cycling are important factors for the success of the bioeconomy, but the products need to be designed in an appropriate way for recycling. For sure, carbon storage in the material is a positive side effect, but I see this more as a leverage to increase competitiveness of bio-based products compared to fossil-based products, e.g. through a CO2tax for fossil-based products.
However, today material use is often not yet competitive and the biobased products need to be further developed. For this reason, research and development needs to focus on development of competitive, biobased products. Meanwhile, the biomass production needs to be extended and could be used for energy generation to replace fossil fuels and reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential and other environmental and socioeconomic impacts of biomass uses depend on a large range of allocation decisions for heterogeneous material and energetic pathways. From your point of view, what kind of governance framework is required to ensure that the transition to a bioeconomy is a sustainable one?
There are several challenges which need to be tackled at the same time. Climate change is maybe the most prominent, but biodiversity, eutrophication and acidification are not minor important. For climate change, I think the certificate system would be a quite useful tool, but at the moment too many certificates are available and the prices are far too low. Further, it needs to be extended to more industries, including the agricultural and the transportation sector. In terms of biodiversity, the Common Agricultural Practice (CAP) could be part of a short-term solution.
To make our future economy truly sustainable, I think all economic activities would need to be subject to holistic life-cycle assessments and the external costs of each product would need to be considered. This could be done for example by introducing different VAT classes according to the external costs of products. I am not sure if this is realistic and it will be a long way, but it would help to solve many problems.