New biorefinery research group a game changer

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The newly established biorefinery research consortium (BRC) is set to create new value chains from waste biomass.

The consortium is 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 bioenterprise.

According to the Department of Science and Technology, the consortium will investigate opportunities for the beneficiation of waste by-products from forestry, timber, pulp and paper industries, such as sawdust, finding alternative and innovative uses for the waste and diverting it from landfills. 

The BRC will use the recently launched R37.5 million Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) that supports innovation in a range of industries, including forestry, agro-processing and other biomass-based industries at the CSIR's Durban campus. 

In its initial phase -2018 to 2021- the consortium will focus on the revitalisation of the forestry, timber, pulp and paper industries. 

This will have both economic and environmental benefits, says Bioinnovation Chief Director Ben Durham.

As things stand, most wood, pulp and paper waste ends up in landfill sites or is burnt, stockpiled or even pumped out to sea.

Durham added that the consortium was conceptualised 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 directly from wood sawdust, without the need for the conventional pulping and bleaching processes that are currently used to isolate cellulose nanocrystals 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 CSIR chief scientist Bruce Sithole, cellulose nanocrystals 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 cellulose nanocrystals from wood sawdust is an achievement. 

The cellulose nanocrystals 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 bio-binders produced from sawdust and castor oil. –