BBI JU AgriChemWhey project: Converting dairy by-products into high value bio-based chemicals

19 March 2018

Among the many positives of bio-based chemicals and feedstock production is that they often use materials that would otherwise be put to waste, fulfilling a vital aspect of the circular economy. In order to make this process as sustainable as possible, it's necessary to make use of resources that are close by. Being forced to ship materials over large distances certainly adds cost and crucially, from a bio-perspective, it can also massively reduce the sustainability of an entire project.

BBI JU AgriChemWhey project: Converting dairy by-products into high value bio-based chemicals

Producers that can access plentiful feedstocks with the minimum of fuss can have the best of both worlds, exactly the position that Ireland finds itself in. The country is in the midst of a bio-based revolution and one company is doing particularly well, calling on the island's strong dairy sector to produce high-value bio-based chemicals made from the by-product of whey protein.

AgriChemWhey is a consortium comprising 11 partners from 5 member states (manufacturers, technical specialists, councils and educational institutions) that will work together to valorise excess by-products from the dairy industry to value-added products such as lactic acid, polylactic acid, minerals for human nutrition and bio-based fertilisers. Providing the backing to make this project a success is the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), the €3.7 billion public-private EU partnership that aims to lower Europe's dependency on fossil-based products by increasing investment in the development of a sustainable bio-based industry sector in Europe.

To learn more about this fascinating project that works in tandem with the Emerald Isle's thriving agricultural sector, Bill Morrissey, procurement manager with one of the companies at the head of AgriChemWhey, Glanbia Ireland, spoke to Bio-Based World News about the BBI JU partnership.

'We see lots of potential for this sector and our project is just the start of it,' says Morrissey. 'It started out as a supply chain contract to dispose of one of the major side streams of whey processing – whey permeate and delactosed permeate. Through our research, we have found a sustainable solution for disposing of these by-products, which can add value by creating a circular bio-economy centred on the dairy industry.'

'The end product primarily produced by AgriChemWhey is lactic acid, the major market for which is the manufacture of the biodegradable plastic polylactic acid (PLA). But what makes this lactic acid so special,' says Bill Morrissey who has been with Glanbia Ireland since 2007, 'is that its manufacture has no impact on food production. What we'll be producing is actually from second-generation feedstock, it isn't from primary foods, which all other lactic acids are. We're also a multi-product bio-refinery, producing probiotics from the same facility to make this project work from an economic point of view.'

Explaining its success, Morrissey makes it plain that without the help of the BBI JU, which is providing €22 million of support, the project would be in a very different place. 'The reality is this project wouldn't have taken place had it not been for the BBI JU. What they have done has de-risked the whole thing. It's not just about the money, which is huge, they also allow us to bring in partners with new technologies to offer, creating a whole ecosystem for this to take place. That consortia approach,' says Morrissey, 'is key to the project's success because, with such new and evolving technologies, there is a real need to have all the support you can get. By disseminating, other partners allow you to add value to their by-products and that's vital to the whole thing particularly when the margins we're dealing with are tight.'

The AgriChemWhey project, which started in January 2018, will be based at Lisheen, County Tipperary. This bio-economy innovation and piloting facility has been something of a game changer, putting the bio-production facilities that keep AgriChemWhey going on its doorstep.

'That was one of the major challenges we had when we started; we had no pilot lab facilities so we couldn't prove internally to our stakeholders that this works at 1,000-litre level, as we were always at a 100-litre level. We had to go to Europe to use facilities there, which delayed the AgriChemWhey project by about two years. We don't have that problem now,' he says. 'Now we have such high levels of expertise in Ireland it'll be a huge enabler for the entire bio-economy. That combined with the unparalleled support from the BBI JU, puts Ireland in a great place.'

As for the future, Morrissey concludes by providing a snapshot of what 2018 and beyond has in store. 'Well, after having submitted planning permission we'll have a team of 15 on-site in Lisheen, and from there we'll be going into basic engineering followed by detailed engineering. After that, we'll hope to turn soil in 12 months time for a €60 million multi-product bio-refinery.'

Source: Bio Market Insights