The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has established a biorefinery research consortium (BRC) to create new value chains from waste biomass.
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 rural-based bioenterprise Sekolong Sa Dimelana.
The BRC will investigate opportunities for the beneficiation of waste by-products from the timber, pulp and paper industries, by finding alternative and innovative uses for the waste and diverting it from landfills.
The consortium will use the recently launched R37.5-million Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) at the CSIR's Durban campus.
In its initial phase, from 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.
DST bio-innovation chief director Ben Durham noted in a statement on Thursday that 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 CNCs from wood.
CNCs are nanoparticles that have impressive optical, rheological and mechanical properties comparable with stainless steel, and have widespread applications in the automotive, construction, paper, medical, food, environmental and industrial sectors.
According to the CSIR and BRC chief scientist Professor Bruce Sithole, CNCs are high-value materials that currently sell for about $1 000/kg. They are typically produced from high-purity wood-derived cellulose products such as microcrystalline cellulose.
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.