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EU project uses water-poor arid land to grow valuable crops

An EU industry-funded project uses marginal land and hardy native plants to produce valuable chemicals for the possible manufacture of a range of products including cosmetics and bioplastics.

The goal is to harness the potential of local areas and build a sustainable, profitable and job-creating value chain.

The rocky hillsides typical of the Mediterranean are difficult to cultivate – one of the main reasons why water-poor and stony land is left unused.

However, for the EU industry-funded First2Run project, this marginal land presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

The opportunity is to grow crops that can produce valuable products, such as oils and biomass, without competing with normal cropland used for food. The challenge is to bring a whole supply chain together – from farmers to biochemical processing and satisfied end users – and show this can be environmentally and commercially sustainable.

First2Run project coordinator Cecilia Giardi of the Italian company Novamont explained:

“We are taking low-input underutilised oil crops that grow easily in arid marginal lands from which we extract bio-monomers.”

“These are the starting point for a range of bioproducts such as biolubricants, cosmetics and bioplastics. The technologies for this have already been developed and validated by our R&D – our goal is to build a complete value chain, which is environmentally sustainable and commercially profitable at an industrial scale.”

Building a value chain

Cardoon has been selected as model crop for demonstrating virtuous bio-based value chains starting from underutilised agricultural resources. A perennial crop, it is native to the Mediterranean and easy to grow, with seeds rich in valuable oils.

Working closely with local farmers in Sardinia, First2Run already has more than 600 hectares of cardoon under cultivation, with an eventual target of 3.5 kilohectares.

Training for farmers helped transfer the growing, harvesting and storage protocols needed for sustainability, including the adaptation of farm machinery.

Cecilia Giardi continued:

“The core of our framework agreements with farmers’ associations is to establish agricultural activities which enhance the value of abandoned and unirrigated land while respecting the local area, in order to feed into the first integrated biorefinery model in the region.”

“This approach is in synergy with the food production chain and centred on high value-added products.”

The extracted cardoon oil is undergoing pilot and full-scale trials at the biorefinery in Porto Torres, Sardinia, to turn it into azelaic and pelargonic acids, which are then converted into bio-based polymers, as well as esters of industrial interest.

Usable chemical products are coming out of the biorefinery which are now undergoing formulation – to ensure a consistent product – and validation – to ensure it meets end-user requirements.

The project has also implemented strategies for process optimisation over the whole value chain. The biorefinery – which represents a new economic model and starting point for further sustainable innovations – aims to demonstrate production, using a continuous production plant, of up to 10 000 tonnes of bio-based monomer annually.

The biomass residue from oil pressing has already been validated for animal feed.

Public-private partnership between the EU and industry

The project – funded through the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership between the EU and industry – has partners both from the industrial and the public and private R&D sectors with expertise in bio-based plastics, biolubricants and cosmetics. The sectors are important potential customers for bio-monomers and esters and integral to the First2Run value chain.

“FIRST2Run represents a first-of-kind value chain with sustainability at its heart,” explains Giardi, noting that more data needs to be collected to highlight ¬the combined environmental, commercial and social benefits.

“We are building a win-win cooperation with small farmers who can bring marginal land into cultivation, benefiting both themselves and their communities. We are sure that such models can be implemented elsewhere around the Mediterranean rim, and possibly elsewhere.”

The project estimates it will be possible to valorise around 20 kilohectares of marginal, unexploited land by 2020 and that 60 new jobs will be created for every kilotonne of produced bioplastics.

According to Giardi, the project has the potential to not only revolutionise the approach to underutilised oil crops but also to revitalise local economies in many rural communities.

Slovakia, Netherlands, UK  are also participating in the € 25 million project, which the EU has contributed around € 16 million towards.

FIRST2Run  started in July 2015 and is due to conclude in June 2019.

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