MaxBio - Maximizing Conversion Yields in Biorefining

Lead Research Organisation: University of Dundee
Department Name: College of Life Sciences


In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming while still managing to fuel and feed the world, many industries need to move towards using renewable carbon neutral feedstocks and away from using oil and petrochemicals. 'Bio'refineries making advanced transportation fuels and chemicals from plant biomass (i.e. agricutural wastes such as straw, or wood cuttings) have the potential to revolutionize the industrial landscape and make production of our fuels and chemicals more sustainable, but this will only succeed if sufficient value can be extracted from the feedstock to make the refining economically competitive with oil refining. This MaxBio project aims to improve the economics of biorefining by optimizing several different stages of the process in a holistic way that ensures that yields of end products are increased beyond what's currently possible.

Technical Summary

MaxBio will improve conversion yields from plant biomass into biofuel and chemical products, focusing on sugar production, sugar release and sugar conversion. By taking an holistic approach to increase yields across the whole process, and deploying novel multifactorial experimental design to combine improvements at various stages, we aim to transform process economics for biorefining. Targeting industrially relevant products including fuel butanol, expert UK academics will improve conversion yields at each processing step but more critically optimise yields across the entire process chain. Project deliverables include integrated process concepts for target products that have been validated at bench-scale. We will first maximise sugar yields from cereal straw, then optimise yields for novel pre-treatment, saccharification and fermentation technologies. Finally we will determine process economics, calculate reductions in greenhouse gas emissons and quantify societal benefits.

Planned Impact

Replacing petrochemical-based fuels and chemicals with equivalent products from renewable plant biomass reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and helps secures chemical and fuel supplies for the future. In 2014, Europe produced 6.6. billion litres of bioethanol fuel enabling 61% GHG savings compared to petrol (ePURE). However, such 1st generation grain-based biofuels are controversial due to perceived conflicts between fuel and food production. By contrast, cellulosic biofuels made from non-food crop biomass (e.g. straw) represent co-products that improve the economics of producing food. Unfortunately, in the face of current cheap oil, the emerging cellulosic fuel/chemical industry is struggling, and will only survive if sufficient value can be realised from the feedstock by maximizing product yields and generating fuels and chemicals with broader uses and higher value than ethanol.

By 2030, the EU will produce enough biowaste to replace 16% of petrol/diesel with advanced biofuels that emit 60% less GHGs (full LCA) and contribute up to €15 billion p.a. to rural economies (NNFCC/ ICCT report). Similarly, the IEA World Energy Outlook predicts that biofuel production will grow 3-4 fold to 2025, stimulating economic growth in the sector. Use of renewable materials to make chemical intermediates currently represents only 5% of the total chemicals market but is forecasted to reach 35% by 2030. A new EU biorefining industry will create: 83K jobs in agriculture, 13K jobs in refineries, 162K jobs in construction, with additional indirect jobs. Smarter use of land to produce food and fuel should reduce public anxiety about biofuels. Biorefineries making advanced fuels and chemicals from renewable carbon-neutral plant biomass could therefore revolutionize the industrial landscape, but only if sufficient value can be extracted by reducing production costs and making higher value products. MaxBio could radically improve the cost and efficiency of producing a range of rewable fuels and chemicals to replace oil-derived products.

Our vision is aligned with European and National policies towards a sustainable biobased economy. Both customers and industrial markets are looking for greater use of environmentally sustainable renewable materials in products that maintain or enhance performance compared to petroleum-derived counterparts. The UK has the resource to produce some of these new products. A recent LBNet report put UK total lignocellulosic biomass waste at 16 million tonnes p.a. (Lignocellulosic Feedstock in the UK; NNFCC 2014) which, if converted to fuel, would potentially be enough to displace 16% of petrol use. Conversion to butanol or other chemicals might unlock even more valuable markets. Platform chemicals derived from biomass waste can have hugely diverse applications in high performance fluids/ lubricants, paints, adhesives, inks, household cleaners, cosmetics and fragrances, personal care items, textiles, and flavours. UK-based companies need to bring production costs down and increase process efficiency to competitively exploit these huge global markets. MaxBio will help to achieve this with subsequent clear benefits to the UK economy by investigating the factors within our expertise i.e. biomass quality, enzyme discovery, strain engineering, and joining them together to focus on the industrial imperative of yield. Societal acceptability will play a crucial role in determining the adoption of sustainable processes for producing bio-based alternatives to products currently produced from petrochemicals. MaxBio is committed to Responsible Research and Innovation and will consult with social scientists to ensure its impacts are foreseen and addressed appropriately; we have been very active in public and stakeholder engagement and will continue these efforts to democratise innovation and minimise risk while transforming our agriculture and industry with more productive and sustainable practices.


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Title Abbey Meiosis CRISPR 
Description Successful use of CRISPR-Cas9 in transgenic barley 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Invitations to speak at scientific meetings e.g. forthcoming SEB Plant Satellite Meeting on New Breeding Technologies, Gothenberg, July 2017