Moving from waste policies to materials policies.The GINEXTRA® bio-refinery technology



I. The current pattern of materials use in Europe

The current pattern of materials use in Europe endangers the availability of the natural resources on which our welfare is based. In addition, this pattern of usage has a negative impact on the quality of air, water and soil, on human health, on climate change and on biodiversity. This environmental degradation occurs both within and outside the EU. If each inhabitant of the world would adopt a consumption pattern equal to that of the average European, the ecological carrying capacity of our planet would be exceeded by far. It is well known that Europes’ imports of agri-food commodities from poorer countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia impact many societal, economic, cultural and environmental dimensions such as landscape resilience (see the dedicated large extension of land cultivation) and food security of local communities. A typical example is the coffee commodity. Another relevant example is constituted by the so-called high-tech metals. Platinum, cobalt, titanium, indium and others are  critical materials for the development of environmental technologies aimed at boosting energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The EU will not master the shift towards sustainable production and environmentally responsible products without such high-tech metals. EU is faced with a supply risk for high-tech metals due to a high import dependence especially from Africa, where 80% of world production is extracted. Put simply, while Europe imports natural resources, it is exporting environmental pressures. Summing up, the main problems related to the present European model of materials use are twofold :

  1. The environmental impact generated by the current pattern of materials use.

The extensive use of natural resources to generate energy and to produce products causes direct and indirect environmental problems and pressures, such as the destruction of fertile land and loss of biodiversity due to extraction; pollution of air, water and soil during production and waste management; the negative effects of transport; and global warming. In short, our use of materials and the related production of damaging greenhouse gas, toxic and non-degradable waste are more extensive than the planet’s capacity to maintain healthy ecosystems.

  1. Scarcity caused by the current pattern of materials use.

The current pattern of production, consumption and materials use in Europe endangers the availability of the natural resources on which our well-being is based. Natural resources use in Europe exceeds availability, and Europe heavily relies on the import of natural resources. Worldwide population growth (from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050) and economic development lead to an increasing demand for natural resources, many of which are finite. This implies that growing global competition for natural resources is adding to the concerns about the future availability of natural resources for Europe. All the above mentioned facts urge Europe to move from waste policies to materials policies covering the full life-cycle, crossing generational and geographical boundaries.

II. Investing in new Bio-refinery approaches

  The EU has gone through considerable efforts in the last 20 years to improve material efficiency, mainly through science technology development in White and Environmental Biotechnology. Nevertheless, this has not been sufficient to reverse fundamentally unsustainable consumption and production trends. In order to obtain true sustainability, far higher levels of absolute decoupling are required. Generally speaking, in the OECD countries, an absolute reduction of an environmental load of around 90% (“Factor 10″) is required within the next three to four decades.  Therefore, the EU (and the Member States) urgently need to manage its raw materials more sustainably and work towards a decoupling of environmental impact from rise in well-being. Europe needs to extracted natural resources in lower concentrations and from difficult or unexploited locations, but this could take to higher energy consumption and increased pressure on the environment, if suitable strategies are not put into practice such as taking risks to invest in sustainable and cost-efficient processing technologies for converting side streams and co-products from bio-based operations into high added-value products and hence increase the supply of biomass feedstock. This is not what is currently happening in Europe: namely current practices in Europe is to divert side streams to low-value applications such as energy and fuels. The present scenario sees a largely prevailing concentration in technologies destroying feedstock’s to produce bio fuel with a lack of attention paid to both optimisation of the biomass sustainable use and the optimised valorisation of the side streams. The prevailing business model is “mechanically” derived from the old petrochemical refinery model. It is based on huge financial investments in big bio-refinery plants which require huge quantity of biomasses at a very low price, cultivated in dedicated huge extension of lands in the surroundings of the bio refinery. If this business and technological model continues to be largely prevailing in Europe, shortly it could lead to delocalisation in the less development countries where low labour costs and large extension of lands are available with huge negative impact on social, economic and environmental effects on the European MS and their third countries partners (especially African countries and Mena countries). On the contrary European cultural and business sustainable models have a vital need for small-scale multipurpose modular and integrated biorefinery technologies, which process wild and cultivated nonfood lignocellulosic biomasses, with zero waste and zero impact on the landscape and natural environment. This is what the  GINEXTRA® technology offers! This kind of technologies could act as a driver of sustainable development models in the European neighbouring countries, vital parts in the whole biomass exploitation value chain. They will allow to establish sustainable logistic strategies and supply-chain management and preserve the cultural and natural environment of most European rural territories and communities as well as intact ecosystem in the African and Mena countries. Additionally, the introduction of this approach will result in a great benefit for the sustainability and competitiveness of the natural fiber industry and especially for the European textile industry. It will allow the inauguration of radical new rural development models and foster new international relations with our historical partners: African and Mena neighbouring countries.

 III. The GINEXTRA® technology

GINEXTRA® is already a European Registered Brand (Registration number 7055312, classes 01, 07, 16, 22, 23, 40) which identify patented and proprietary multipurpose modular bio-refinery technologies and a duly tested model of community regeneration. Thanks to an intense research activity, led in partnership with the most advanced European R&D bodies specialised in white and environmental biotechnologies and their application to natural fibres, ARTES has achieved the following tangible results:

- Two proprietary non-commercially released microbial strains selected and used to produce an enzymatic cocktail with a high degradative capacity of lignin and hemicellulose, but not capable of attacking the cellulose component, which had to be separated but not modified in its physical and mechanical characteristics.

- Realisation and patenting of a pilot biotechnology plant (in a small scale for the extraction of 5 kg. per day of crude fiber) with low power consumption (Patent n° 0001396855 entitled “Machine, procedure and combined plant for the separation of fibers for textile by macerated stems of fiber plant”); which only uses enzymatic retting and mechanical defibering.

- Conception, engineering and lab testing (300 gr, 2,5 kg) of a multipurpose new fast bio – refinery plant, which reduces the fibre extraction time to 1/8, compared with the already patented plant and produces liquid and solid wastes of particular potential interest for the extraction of hemicelluloses, lignin, and other biochemicals (patent demand N°To achieve rapid, sustained and concerted changes in lifestyles and resource use that cut across all levels of society and economy).

- Cultivation and mechanized harvesting of the Spartium junceum successfully tested, with parameter definition of profitability compared with hemp and flax;

- Industrial spinning and weaving of the resulting fibres and realisation of samples of yarn, paper, bacterial nanocellulose, lignin and hemicellulose.

- Creation and registration of the CTM GINEXTRA (Registration number 7055312, classes 01, 07, 16, 22, 23, 40)

Upscaling and integration of technologies, moving from lab research and small-scale demonstrators is the goal of ARTES which has formed a large partnership among industries and biotechnological European laboratories and is developing project proposals in both BBI JU calls and other programmes such as ENI CBCMED and INTERREG Central Europe. A huge investment in project design and development. GINEXTRA® technology consists in obtaining fiber from Spartium junceum (Spanish broom, or Ginestra) a perennial shrub which has a structure similar to a brush, with straight pedicles and evergreen, tender twigs. ARTES, has isolated strains and developed an enzymatic process which uses proprietary enzymatic cocktail branded as GINEXTRA® with high performance as ligninase but which does not effect cellulose and allows the extraction of intact high-quality fibers. The fiber extracted has a great interest in many industries starting form textile. Spanish Broom plants are often found growing together as dense thickets, in waste areas, abandoned pastures, and roadsides, preferring poor, infertile soils. Its penetrating root structure indicates that Spanish Broom is an important pioneer species, holding together poor soils and preventing erosion. It is indigenous to temperate Europe, northern as well as in South Asia, such as in Tajikistan, but also it spontaneously grows in Latin America, such as Paraguay.  

  The GINEXTRA® technology uses only the annual growth of the wild plant which is collected to clean the forests and avoid dangerous fire during summer. Nevertheless, it is to be highlighted that the GINEXTRA® technology has already been tested with good results with Esparto Grass (a well-known shrub which grows in million hectares in North Africa, and South Europe).  
  The technology available at pilot scale has allowed producing high-quality textile fibre, which was industrially spun and weaved.  
  In order to maximise the cost-efficiency of the valuable fiber extracted and enhance the competitiveness of the whole value chain, a research programme was developed to investigate and obtain high-value marketable bioproducts from the solid and liquid waste of the primary bio refinery process (maceration liquid and solid waste). Thanks to this research programme an evaluation of valuable intermediate products suitable to produce biochemicals and platform molecules available after the fiber extraction was obtained at the end of 2015.  
  The research programme concluded in 2016 allowed the extraction and purification of lignin, hemicellulose, cellulose pulp and the production of bio paper using solid waste. With liquid waste, bacterial cellulose was produced at a cost which is 39% lower form standard international costs. Beside the production at industrial scale of high-quality yarns, fabrics and garments, the side streams obtained have been already tested to produce valuable biochemical such as bacterial cellulose, at lab scale.

IV. Side stream valorization: the project VALUE FROM WASTE | VA-WA

One of the projects conceived and recently submitted by ARTES and its international network, within the BBI-JU the last call, is the project VALUE FROM WASTE | VA-WA – Upscale and integrate multipurpose modular bio-refinery to produce high value-added materials from wastes originating from renewable plant biomass”.  

  VA-WA‘s goal is to value neglected resources, such as Spartium junceum or esparto grass, growing in poor marginal soils and preventing extension of desertification, in north Africa, the Euro-Mediterranean countries, and South Asia. It addresses also another challenge: to demonstrate feasible responses to the severe problems of the European economic and societal model which has a huge impact on the poorest countries which supply us vital mass commodities. Untreated waste left after agri-food commodities which are processed and imported to Europe could become valuable factories of healthy biochemicals. These biochemicals could be processed to produce biomaterials which will hasten job creation and enterprise creation, preserving landscape resilience and maintaining a healthy planet for the benefit of all. This is why the VA-WA has included partners from Turkey and from Burundi. They will be our companions in addressing the challenge of the project while attesting to their historical contributions to the European civilisation. This is the ambition of VA-WA: to demonstrate that answers are available if the a correct approach is assumed! Furthermore, VA-WA addresses the challenge of giving breath to the courage of micro and small enterprises (MSMEs). By theory, we know very well that while SMEs are territorial in that they grow in symbiosis with the community in which they are created (see the European project Regard Croises: http://www.artes-research.com/portfolio-articoli/regards-croises/); big multinationals corporates act globally; they move anywhere there are the most convenient externalities to maximise profit. Very often MSMEs do not seek maximisation of profit. They have a core mission to create value and a better life for the families and the communities in which they live. This project has the ambition to combine the interests of local rural precious ecosystems and global perspective of sustainable management of materials. We wish to develop a small/medium sized pilot biorefinery plant compatible with a diverse set of side stream valorisation technologies, in a perspective of Z waste and Z impact on landscape resilience. We were born micro, we are growing with the ambition to create a global value chain. Wherever such a bio-refinery is built, it will use local biomasses, extract biochemicals and exchange geographically unique products on a global scale. Our technology allows a feasible Km zero model without missing global exchange of goods, services, and people.