Plant Biomass Biorefinery Network (PBBNet)

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Biology


Petroleum is a fossil carbon resource used to produce most of the transportation fuels and large proportions of bulk chemicals and materials we have come to depend on, but reserves of this resource are in decline. At the same time, concerns over the impact of human activity on global warming and climate change are driving international commitments to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon doixide produced from burning fossil fuels. This has encouraged a move towards biofuels and biorenewable chemicals derived from plants. Such biorenewables have the advantage that they are produced continually by crops and hence area a renewable resource. In addition, these products emit far less carbon dioxide on a net basis because that released from their use is balanced by having been fixed from the atmosphere to produce the biomass in the first instance. Currently, biofuels and biorenewable chemicals are produced mostly from plant sugar, starch and oil, and the problem with this is that it imposes added strain to world food security and pushes up food prices. The most immediately available alternative is to make biofuels and chemicals from the woody parts of crops that are not used for food such as straw from cereal crops. These woody materials are mostly made of polysaccharides (sugar polymers) that can be converted into simple sugars for fermentation to produce fuels and chemicals. Whilst the potential of producing fuels and chemicals in this way is well understood, the practicality of doing it is challenging. This is because the costs of converting woody materials into simple sugars and other chemicals is too expensive to make the resulting products cost-effective.

Producing cost effective and sustainable biofuels and chemicals from woody biomass is a new industrial challenge that can only be met by bringing wide-ranging scientific disciplines together with companies from the commercial sector with ambitions in this domain. In order to bring down processing costs we need to develop innovative new approaches to bioprocessing, which incorporate understanding and innovation across the supply chain from crop production and harvesting through processing to final products. The aim of the Plant Biomass Biorefinery Network is establish a community of researchers from the academic and commercial sectors to identify the major system-wide challenges to establishing a modern fuel and chemicals industry based on plant biomass. This network will help establish integrated cross-disciplinary teams to tackle the big challenges to realising the vision of s sustainable and competitive bio-based economy. As well as providing an active community of interested participants, the network proposes to provide a range of competitive funding opportunities to help kick-start new major research projects and to attract new researchers into this area of research. We also plan to establish the UK as the international partner of choice in the area of biomass-derived fuels and chemicals. This will be achieved by establishing an excellent science base and providing encouragement and funding to UK scientists to establish competitive international collaborations. The network will also work closely with environmental scientists to ensure that environmental concerns are at the heart of approaches we take, and with policy makers from government departments to harmonise our aims and activities with government policy and public interests.

Technical Summary

The need to curb greenhouse gas emissions from unsustainable use of fossils fuels coupled with declining global reserves of petroleum and increasing costs of their extraction provide strong drivers to develop alternative methods for fuel and chemical production. Plant biomass is currently the only renewable and sustainable non-food renewable, sustainable feedstock available on a scale commensurate with current use of petroleum. Lignocellulosic biomass is a rich source of fixed carbon incorporated into a range of polymers comprising mainly polysaccharides and lignin. These polysaccharides consist mainly of cellulose and complex matrix hemicelluloses that form a cohesive network that is effectively cemented into a robust composite material by the phenolic polymer lignin. Lignocellulosic plant biomass also contains a wide range of less abundant chemicals and polymers including sterols, waxes and fatty acids. Thus, this non-food feedstock has the potential to provide a wide range of bulk and speciality chemicals that can serve as the basis for producing most of the products we currently obtain from petroleum. At present, the development of new industries based on plant biomass is challenged by the lack of cost-effective approaches to convert lignocellulose into useful component parts for bioprocessing. We also currently lack a clear joined up vision across the supply chain that combines the necessary disciplines of biology, chemistry and engineering and identifies where the major challenges and opportunities to establishing this new industry lie. We propose the establishment of a Plant Biomass Biorefinery Network (PBBNet) to establish a cohesive multi-disciplinary network of researchers and stakeholders with interests in lignocellulose-derived biorenewables in order to overcome fragmentation of the research community in this area and develop systems based approaches to move this area forward.

Planned Impact

We propose the establishment of a Plant Biomass Biorefinery Network (PBBNet) to establish a cohesive multi-disciplinary network of researchers and stakeholders with interests in lignocellulose-derived biorenewables in order to overcome fragmentation of the research community in this area and develop systems based approaches to move this area forward.

This network will have benefits for a wide range of stakeholders with interests in the biorenewable fuels and chemicals industries, these include:
1. Researchers in the areas of working in feedstock improvement (crop breeding), feedstock production (farming), logistics and transportation, processing (engineers and chemists), deconstruction (biologists, engineers, chemists), fermentation (biologists and engineers), product recovery, anaerobic digestion and combustion for heat and power generation from residues, and water and plant nutrient recycling and capture.
2. The network will also involve and benefit environmental scientists interested in sustainability issues and social scientists and economists studying the impact of new industries
3. The work is also directly relevant to policy makers from the government sector, working to decrease the UK's carbon footprint, stimulate new industries and revive the rural economy.
4. The network will involve and benefit a wide range of commercial enterprises working in the farming, logistics, engineering, chemical engineering, fermentation, anaerobic digestion, enzymes, water purification, fuel, chemicals and natural products industries.
5. The general public, through being made aware of the benefits and challenges in establishing sustainable bio-based industries

These stakeholders will benefit directly by being part of the network. These benefits will come from:
1. helping develop policy documents to help influence relevant government policy, and public funding of research in this area.
2. defining major research challenges relevant to their interests
3. overcoming fragmentation in the sector and gaining benefits from taking part in multi-disciplinary innovative research to tackle major challenges
4. forming collaborations to compete for major funding on the national and international stages
5. the attraction of talented young researchers into areas relevant to their interests
6. from being part of a community of researchers committed to developing a sustainable future for mankind

The network will benefit the nation's health, wealth and culture by enabling the establishment of new industries and jobs in areas that will help improve our environment by reducing carbon emissions and dependence on non-renewable resources.


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Description This is a networking activity. We have organised events and distributed pump-priming funds, so we do not directly carry out research
Exploitation Route By joining our network and forming new collaborations.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description The Lignocellulosic Biorefinery Network (LBNet) was an active community of industrial practitioners and leading academics dedicated to creating economic value by developing novel chemicals, materials and fuel using lignocellulosic biomass instead of petroleum-derived inputs. LBNet had over 780 members drawn from industry, academia and other organisations. LBNet provided both access to a range of funding to kick-start innovation in the sector, and organised events. Funding Proof of Concept (PoC): 12 POC projects were awarded POC sandpit workshops leading to POC funding: the objective was to develop concepts and teams to take on our Grand Challenge in the area of Lignocellulose Processing (from feedstock to products). At the end of the workshop teams applied for up to £50K for POC projects. Target audience: Industrial practitioners and academics. We also had 2 POC open calls. • 24-25/09/2014 1st LBNet Challenge Workshop (sandpit) leading to Proof of Concept funds: "Lignocellulose processing: from feedstock to products". Rudding Park, Harrogate, North Yorkshire. 3 POC projects were awarded. •13-14/05/2015 2nd LBNet Challenge Workshop (sandpit) leading to Proof of Concept funds: "Making value out of lignin". Worsley Park Marriott Hotel. Manchester. 2 POC projects were awarded. • 04-05 /11/2015 3rd LBNet Challenge Workshop (sandpit) leading to Proof of Concept funds: "Valorisation of lignocellulosic polysaccharides". Waterton Park Hotel, Walton, Wakefield. 2 POC projects were awarded. • 20/04/16 Biorefinery Scoping Workshop: A workshop to discuss how, where and using what feedstock a lignocellulosic biorefinery might be established in the UK. Park Inn Hotel, York. • 29/09/16 Biorefinery Scoping Workshop: Lignocellulosic Biorefineries in the UK. 1st LBNet Open Call: A workshop to discuss the findings of a path-finding report commissioned after the event held on the 20th April 2016, on where a lignocellulosic biorefinery might be established in the UK. Park Inn Hotel, York. 3 POC projects, at £100K each were awarded. • 18-19 /10/2017 4th LBNet Challenge Workshop (sandpit) leading to Proof of Concept funds: "UKBioChem10: Defining the development path of Industrial Bio-based chemicals in the UK". The Principal Hotel, York, 2 POC projects were awarded. Total awarded: £736,437 Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst Seeding Funds (ICSF): 5 ICSF projects were awarded LBNet was awarded a further £100K ICSFs, with these funds a 2nd LBNet Open Call was held and 4 POC projects -each up to 25K -were awarded. LBNet was awarded a further £50K to fund the 5th ICSF Project. Business Interaction Vouchers (BIV): 25 BIV projects awarded BIV calls: Since the beginning of project we had BIV open calls and 25 BIVs were awarded (£5K and £10K each). Total awarded: £194,261 and industrial contributions: £210,437 Early Stage Career Fellowship (ESCF): 2 ESCF were awarded We had a single open call for the duration of the project. LBNet awarded 2 ESCF (£75K each) Consortium Building Meeting Funds 2 projects were awarded In summary, LBNet has distributed a range of funding in a number of different formats including: Proof of Concept funds (12 projects funded); Business Interaction Vouchers (23 projects funded); Early Stage Career Fellowships (2 projects funded); Catalyst Seeding POC funds (5 projects awarded), Consortium Building Meeting funds (2 projects). Landscape documents Landscape documents commissioned by LBNet. The documents were core to informing our POC funding strategy. Topics were principally identified by the Management Board and through consultation with our membership and are intended to provide intelligence around opportunities and barriers to biomass biorefining in the UK: -2014, Lignocellulosic feedstocks in the UK, NNFCC -2015, Lignin. Derivatives-Value Added Chemicals, Oakdene Hollins -2016 An assessment of the potential for the establishment of lignocellulosic biorefineries in the UK, E4tech -2017, UKBioChem10: UK Top Bio-based Chemicals Opportunities, E4tech -2018, BioChem10. The 10 green chemicals which can create growth, jobs and trade for the UK, Life Size Media -2019, LBNET Plastics and the Bioeconomy Report, Ricardo Energy & Environment -2020, Pretreatment for the enzymatic deconstruction of lignocellulosic biomass, Jesmond Engineering. UKBioChem10 website and video Based on the UKBioChem10 landscape documents a dedicated website has been developed. Also a video has been commissioned. Both, the website and the video, were launched on 21st March 2019 at the 4th LBNet International Conference. The UKBioChem10 work will continue to be developed by the Phase II NIBB, BBNet. LBNet/BBNet videos on the need for biomass biorefining to meet the low carbon agenda and stimulate economic growth. Four outreach videos were commissioned on the theme of biorefining for a sustainable future and bioplastics production. The aim was to take some of the more notable achievements and aspirations of the NIBB and use these to produce these outreach materials aimed at policy makers, school students and the public at large, with a view to deepening understanding and enthusiasm for low carbon technologies and the sustainable bioeconomy. Four episodes have been produced entitled: Background to biorenewables Science behind Biorenewables Scaling up UK industry and future The videos are located in the BBNet website and promoted via BBNet newsletters. Meetings/Conferences • 8 January 2015, Industrial Biotechnology and Business: A Director's briefing. Royal Society, London • 17-19 February 2016, 1st LBNet International Conference 'Construction and Deconstruction of Lignocellulosic Biomass'. Shrigley Hall Hotel, Macclesfield, Cheshire • 30 June -1 July 2016, IBTI-NIBB Event: Value Chain of Waste and Bio-resources as Feedstocks. To address issues with the value chain of waste and bio-resources as feedstocks. Portland Hotel, Manchester • 5-7 April 2017, 2nd International Conference "Challenges and opportunities in lignocellulosic biorefining: Science, Policy and economics" Shrigley Hall Hotel, Macclesfield, Cheshire. • 6 July 2017, UKBioChem10 Defining the developmental path of industrial bio-based chemicals in the UK. Royal Society of Chemistry, London • 26th September 2017, LBNet Breakfast meeting: UKBioChem10 Defining the developmental path of industrial bio-based chemicals in the UK. Royal Society, London • 16-18 May 2018, 3rd LBNet International Conference "Challenges and opportunities in lignocellulosic biorefining: Feedstock, Technology and Products" Shrigley Hall Hotel, Macclesfield, Cheshire. • 20-22 March 2019, 4th LBNet International Conference, Shrigley Hall Hotel, Macclesfield, Cheshire. Early Stage Career Workshops • 8-10 July 2015, 1st LBNet Early stage career workshop: "Turning innovative ideas into bankable projects. How to develop project ideas and attract funding" Redworth Hall, Darlington • • 18-19 May 2016, Early Career Researchers event: IB skills conference. Manchester Mac Donald Hotel, Manchester • 12 April 2017, Early Career Researchers event: Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy Careers fair, Firth Hall, Sheffield • 18-18 July 2018, 'Beyond the lab: developing your Industrial Biotechnology Career' conference University of York Exhibition Centre LBNet Management Board Meetings: -24/04/14 1st LBNet Management Board (MB) meeting (Kick-off meeting), York -26/09/14 2nd LBNet MB Meeting, Rudding Park Hotel, Harrogate -15/05/15 3rd LBNet MB Meeting, Worsley Park Hotel, Manchester -06/11/15 4th LBNet MB Meeting, Waterton Park Hotel, Wakefield -21/04/16 5th LBNet MB Meeting, Park Inn by Radisson, York -30/11/16 6th LBNet MB Meeting, Imperial College London -07/04/17 7th LBNet MB Meeting, Shrigley Hall Hotel, Cheshire -18/05/17 8th LBNet MB Meeting, Imperial College London -20/10/17 9th LBNet MB Meeting, the Principal Hotel, York -18/05/18 10th LBNet MB Meeting, Shrigley Hall Hotel, Cheshire -20/03/19 11th LBNet MB Meeting, Shrigley Hall Hotel, Cheshire The LBNet Management Board and Director have contributed to a number of different calls for evidence including: -Report: "Sustainability of liquid biofuels", Royal Academy of Engineering, July 2017 -Response to a BEIS Consultation on the bioeconomy on behalf of LBNet, December 2016
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic

Description Our UK Biochem10 document that explores the potential for sustainable bio-based chemicals in the UK, is being used by Beis to help define areas of potential investment in industrial biotechnology in the UK
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Investigating the potential for integrating large-scale biofuel and bioenergy production at Drax 
Organisation Drax Group
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We are working together to investigate the potential to add value to Drax's power generation income by adding a biorefinery and biofuels component to it.
Collaborator Contribution Sharing knowledge of their current biomass to bioenergy operations and working with us to examine if and how biorefining could be included.
Impact A report entitled "Investigating the potential for integrating large-scale biofuel and bioenergy production at Drax" has been produced.
Start Year 2015