Importance of Biomass in Circular Economy

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September 16, 2022


Renewable Energy / Synthetic Biology


Importance of Biomass in Circular Economy

Biomass is defined as organic matter grown by the usual functioning of a living organism. This matter holds inside a multitude of compounds rich in bonds and therefore energy. Understanding the concept of biomass is not difficult, because we have always used it. I venture to say even more: without the primary production of plant biomass, the human would not have been able to move forward. It is precisely this continued use of matter produced by other living beings that we had to engineer an infrastructure that would allow us to recycle some of the waste produced.

While some biomass-derived products – such as plastics or cardboard – are easily recyclable, this is not the case with the procedure for making them, for example, or other by-products. The CO2 emissions that are of great concern to countries now have their origins in the misuse of fossil plant biomass, mostly. Not to mention that recycling is in fact an energy-inefficient and low-yielding process, so energy and material must be continuously contributed to the process. These limitations make enough room for a new concept to fill this niche. We’re talking about the great circular economy.

What is Circular Economy?

A circular economy is actually a broader concept that deals with avoiding the input of raw materials into the production and recycling system. We are talking about all raw materials, from rare minerals and metals to make cutting-edge technology devices to plant biomass. This is very interesting because it emphasizes that resources are not unlimited, just as the human capacity to buffer the effects of the waste this causes is not infinite. Imagine for a moment that all the microplastic in the ocean – yes, that “seventh continent” that has appeared in the Pacific the size of France – was used to feed farm animals. This idea, which sounds crazy, is not so far-fetched after all. There are a few bacteria capable of degrading PET (a widespread type of plastic) by means of enzymes called petases. This process basically recirculates the carbon contained in these plastics (which was once extracted from petroleum) back into the biosphere, allowing the bacteria to grow. These plastics are now part of the food chain in the form of soluble sugars and can be designed to become part of animal feed or the normal microbiota of plant roots.

Another more current example would be the recirculation of pig slurry to become part of the plants they feed on. This, which may even sound a bit cruel, is actually a process that normally takes place in nature. Since archaic times, waste biomass (plant and animal) has been used as fertilizer or for composting. The difference now is that extensive livestock farming produces millions of liters of animal waste that are highly polluting and not easily convertible. But the Lenma LIFE project between a public biotechnology research institution (CNB) and a private company is a clear example of cooperation to fix a major problem. There are still some problems to be solved because plants grown from animal waste retain some toxins and the aminoacidic profile isn’t optimized to animal requirements. But it’s a great idea that takes advantage of nature’s renewing qualities to prevent us from extracting more resources from the Earth.

Current State & Start-ups

So far, we have only talked about a couple of somewhat curious and interesting examples, but biomass takes many different forms, so many that they are impossible to list because there are still unknown or unknown artificial forms in which it can be accumulated and/or reused. Much remains to be done to take advantage of the full potential of the circular economy in human societies. Many measures are not difficult to implement, only that most governments are reluctant to change the paradigm and prefer to follow a more proven and secure model. Other aspects of the circular economy are more profound and require prior learning, gradual changes, and a lot of research.

In private initiatives we have everything. In the simplest but no less effective concept of a circular economy, we have Sulapac, a company dedicated to reusing already extracted material. Although this may not seem at all sophisticated, it is a magnificent idea that allows us to give several (and in some cases infinite) lives to the raw materials used. Slightly more diversified and technical is the EDAPHOS project, dedicated to converting soil with discarded building materials such as gypsum into fertile soil, through the action of GMO mycelium. There are also more eccentric alternatives, such as Femer, as they are reconverting the waste of marine animals into beautiful fish leather, which you can already buy on their website.

The Future

The current production model is totally unsustainable since there is a continuous input of raw materials that are not replaced in a human time period, so there will necessarily be a day when these resources will no longer have to be extracted from the original source, but from our own filth and the atmosphere. The main question here is when, not how, to make the transition to a circular economy model where the biomass that is already circulating in the system is the only biomass we should be using.

The future, therefore, can be in two very different manners. I imagine it as a place where those in power are finally able to heed the scientific evidence without delay or excuses and act with full weight to protect everyone’s home. The other way, well, you get the picture.

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