Photo: Colourbox

Society of tomorrow based on biomass

Monday 30 Oct 17
by Marianne Vang Ryde


Lene Lange
DTU Bioengineering
Biological material that would otherwise be regarded as waste can be put to far better use. We simply have to decide to do it,” says Lene Lange, DTU’s expert in the National Bioeconomic Panel.

Environment and Food Minister Esben Lunde Larsen recently reinstigated The National Bioeconomic Panel, which was first established in 2013. Among the committee’s first tasks will be to look at how Danish protein resources can be better developed so that imports of soya in animal feed from South America can be reduced.

One of the few repeat panel participants is Professor Lene Lang from DTU Chemical Engineering who has worked with bioeconomics for nearly 30 years—20 years at Novozymes, then at the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University—and now at DTU. Her explanation of the concept of the bioeconomy goes like this:

Photo: privat

“Most people probably associate the concept with converting straw into ethanol, but you can refine an infinite number of biological materials currently regarded as waste—from household waste to different by-products of animal production. Even sludge from treatment plants can be upgraded. This is where a large proportion of our limited phosphorus resources ends up, but with microorganisms we can recover the phosphorus, and once recovered, you can cultivate bacteria on the rest and use these bacteria to create biopolymers.

Denmark is at the cutting edge of biological production, where microorganisms are used to produce new products. Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, and Danisco DuPont are all good examples with their production of insulin, enzymes, and ingredients, respectively. Arla utilizes whey, a by-product from cheese, in the production of special protein-rich diet for infants, athletes, and people who are ill. And through its DC Ingredients unit, Danish Crown is examining how more parts of the slaughtered animals—blood, among other things—can be utilized.

However, bioeconomic thinking must permeate all parts of society, and I’m therefore delighted that the minister has now reinstigated the National Bioeconomic Panel. One of the first issues to address is how we can better develop Danish protein resources, thereby reducing the import of soya in animal feed from South America. We must become better at utilizing the resources instead of wasting half—and ensure that as much as possible of the refinement process takes place where the raw materials are. This is what the circular economy is all about.”

You talk about replacing some of our corn fields out with grass and clover. Why?

“Our corn fields are yellow from the last week of July—and after that they don’t make particularly good use of the sun’s rays. Grass and clover can be harvested several times a year, the young plants have a high protein content, and their root system utilizes the nutrients better all year round—so it would give fewer problems in connection with the leaching of nitrogen, for example. You would also be able to reduce the use of pesticides by replacing some of the vast corn fields with a mixture of clover and grass, which almost don’t share any diseases and which also have less time to be sick in due to the shorter growing season.”

What do the farmers have to say about it?

“I meet a lot of farmers who are interested in the new ideas. I’m not suggesting that all corn fields should be converted into grass and clover, but the current practice can make it difficult to comply with the EU’s Water Framework Directive. There’s talk of more setting aside, but instead we could turn some of the fields into grass and clover for high protein animal feed, food ingredients, and nutrients to be returned to the soil. This could provide truly sustainability—environmentally, socially, and economically—through biorefinery job creation.

Experiments are also underway with hemp, sunflower, broad beans, and new types of rapeseed—and we’re looking into whether we can identify individual components in the protein of particular benefit to humans. Once we grow accustomed to harvesting something that must be refined, the possibilities are limitless.”

How can DTU contribute to this agenda?

“Bioeconomic thinking is rooted in a basic technical understanding of biological conversion, separation, membranes, filtration, stabilization, etc. We can contribute with knowledge about how the individual chemical components must be handled, sensors, monitoring, life cycle assessments, and IT.” Bioeconomy has recently been named a new sector development area at DTU with Group Leader Simon Bolvig from DTU Management as section head.”

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