The waste biomass sector receives a boost thanks to the establishment of a biorefinery research consortium (BRC) by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), to create new value chains from waste biomass.

In order to create new value chains from waste biomass, the Department of Science and Technology has established a biorefinery research consortium. Credit: Creative Commons

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 bio enterprise.

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. This will have both economic and environmental benefits.

The BRC will use the recently launched R37,5-million Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) 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.

The BIDF supports innovation in a range of industries, including forestry, agroprocessing and other biomass-based industries. Currently, biorefinery technology in South Africa’s pulp and paper industry is practised on a very limited scale. Most wood, pulp and paper waste ends up in landfill sites or is burnt, stockpiled or even pumped out to sea.

Ben Durham, DST chief director: bio-innovation, says 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 (CNCs) directly from wood sawdust, without the need for the conventional pulping and bleaching processes that are currently used to isolate CNC from wood.

Cellulose nanocrystals are nanoparticles that have impressive optical, rheological and mechanical properties comparable with stainless steel, and have widespread applications in various industries, namely the construction, paper, environmental and industrial sectors.

According to CSIR chief scientist at the BRC, Professor Bruce Sithole, CNCs 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 CNC from wood sawdust is an achievement.

The CNCs 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 biobinders produced from sawdust and castor oil.