Brewing greener chemicals from fermented waste

27 February 2020

The PERCAL project is expanding the circular economy by developing novel solutions for transforming the organic part of municipal solid waste (MSW). Your dinner leftovers, vegetable peelings and discarded packaging paper could provide environmentally friendly alternatives to commonly used chemicals, thanks to innovative technologies and fermentation processes being developed by BBI JU-funded researchers.

The PERCAL project is expanding the circular economy by developing novel solutions for transforming the organic part of municipal solid waste (MSW). Your dinner leftovers, vegetable peelings and discarded packaging paper could provide environmentally friendly alternatives to commonly used chemicals, thanks to innovative technologies and fermentation processes being developed by BBI JU-funded researchers.

More than 100 million tonnes of organic MSW, such as paper and cardboard, food residues and gardening waste, are generated by homes and businesses across Europe each year. Most of it ends up in landfills, being burnt in incinerators or turned into low-quality compost or biogas. Instead, it could be used as a sustainable source of feedstock for producing greener intermediate chemicals used for many applications across multiple industries.

PERCAL intends to provide a more environmentally and economically sustainable solution to managing the organic fraction of municipal solid waste, helping to solve environmental pollution and contributing to the transition from a linear to a circular bioeconomy,’ says project coordinator Caterina Coll Lozano, chief operating officer and innovation manager at IMECAL in Spain.

The project partners, which include chemical firms, industrial end-users and leading research institutes from across Europe, are refining techniques to generate intermediate chemicals such as lactic acid, succinic acid and bioethanol from organic compounds extracted from MSW.

These organic chemical building blocks are key ingredients in many household and industrial products such as detergents, adhesives and polyols for polyurethane used in varnishes, packaging materials and insulation foam – markets currently valued at more than EUR 100 billion.

Using innovative fermentation and purification processes, the PERCAL consortium is ‘brewing’ bioproducts with the same purity, quality and yield as existing commercial products. As a result, the project is developing alternative and more sustainable sources of natural feedstock for the chemical industry. The production process is designed to complement existing bioethanol production from MSW via IMECAL’s patented PERSEO Bioethanol® technology, which is currently deployed at the PERSEO Biorefinery demonstration plant in Alcúdia, Spain.

A ‘cascade of value’

‘We are developing a cascade of value from the treatment of MSW. Different biotechnologies are being used to transform the organic MSW into added-value bioproducts: bioethanol, lactic acid, succinic acid and biosurfactants. These chemicals are used to produce many commercial products, including hot-melt adhesives, green solvents, polyester-polyols coatings and fire-resistant foams,’ Coll Lozano explains.

The PERCAL researchers have successfully tested their technologies in the laboratory, producing small batches of intermediate chemicals, and are in the process of scaling up the approach to evaluate its commercial viability.

‘The main challenges are the treatment of the heterogeneous feedstock to produce a suitable substrate for fermentation and the purification steps required for the production of purified intermediate chemicals,’ the project coordinator says.

Cocktails and chemicals

In addressing those issues, the PERCAL researchers have achieved a number of important innovations, including developing novel cocktails of enzymes to maximise the fermentation of diverse organic matter. They have also developed processes to increase the yield and purity of the extracted chemicals and techniques to enhance the extraction of fermented by-products. The key project results achieved so far have been published in two scientific papers.

‘Among the main achievements has been enabling the fermentation of up to 85 % of potential fermentable sugars contained in heterogeneous organic MSW, producing lactic acid with more than 90 % purity and succinic acid with more than 99 % purity,’ Coll Lozano adds. ‘By the end of the project, we expect to have demonstrated the safety, regulatory compliance and environmental and economic sustainability of the processes and products, enabling us to evaluate how our technologies and processes will perform on a commercial scale.’

Source: European Commission, Research and Innovation Information Centre