Biotec conversion processes involve the conversion of mostly organic compounds (biomass) to products for energy production or material use. They are enormously important to achieve a sustainable and future-proof bioeconomy. In this process, plant biomass is naturally broken down into its individual constituents by microorganisms (fungi and bacteria) with the help of enzymes, and subsequently used as a nutrient. In addition to the growth of microorganisms, other products can be created, including acids, oils, alcohols, antibiotics, and aromatics.
This process takes place naturally with no pretreatment, but is very slow. In the case of wood, for example, complete degradation takes several years. Microbial consortiums comprising many different microorganisms are necessary for complete degradation. So this step must be hugely accelerated to achieve a biotec process that takes only a few days or weeks. This is usually achieved by separating the wood into its individual constituents: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Chemical or enzymatic saccharification can also be achieved by decomposing cellulose into glucose and hemicellulose into (primarily) xylose.
This process is being implemented by the Biotec Conversion field of research. The sugar produced serves, alongside the other constituents, as a nutrient for the microorganisms. In addition, careful adjustment of the growth parameters (temperature, pH value, nutrient concentration and oxygen supply) – and possibly genetic modification – can be used to encourage the microorganisms to create larger quantities of the desired valuable product.
Our goal is to process all the parts of a deciduous tree – wood chips, leaves, bark and wood juice – and the sugars released from them and to use all the constituents, that is cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin to produce valuable products with the help of microorganisms and/or enzymes. To achieve this, we rely on the natural properties of fungi and bacteria to utilize the biomass. We also modify the production strains so that all constituents of the deciduous tree can be metabolized, creating as much ‘product’ as possible. The goal of the process is to use all material produced by a deciduous tree as feedstock for a value chain that goes far beyond simply using it for energy production.
Projects already being planned include the production of enzymes for biological wood pulping, the manufacture of biosurfactants for customized use as emulsifiers (for example in cleaning agents and cosmetics), and the development of high-quality protein sources for the production of vegetarian and vegan foods.