Biomass: linchpin of the bioeconomy
What does the term "biomass" cover and what is actually meant by "functional biomass"? An explanation.
From time to time, we are asked what kind of "biomass" we work with as an industrial biotechnology company or how we utilize this biomass. The answer is that BRAIN Biotech is not a biomass recycler itself, but a so-called "enabler" for those companies that want to put their residual or side streams to further use. In the food industry, for example, large quantities of biowaste are generated during the processing of fruit or vegetables, which is too valuable to be merely composted or even disposed of without further use. As a technology provider, we offer solutions for breaking down such biomass, e.g. with the help of enzymes, and "coaxing" valuable substances out of it in the fermentation process for subsequent applications. Here we explain why we at BRAIN Biotech nevertheless use the term "biomass" but mean something different by it.
Biomass – from microorganisms to renewable raw materials
By definition, biomass is living and growing or also dead mass consisting of biological but not fossil matter. Plant biomass, which plays a central role in the bioeconomy, accordingly consists of the totality of living plants and algae as well as the resulting dead material. A look back at science reflects how the meaning of the term biomass has changed over the years.
The earliest scientific publications that the internet divulges on the term "biomass" date back to the 1930s. They refer, for example, to the quantification of crustaceans in a particular ecosystem or to the quantification of larval biomass of the carrion fly Phormia groenlandica in laboratory experiments on food competition.
In publications by Russian scientists from the 1950s, biomass was often equated with microorganisms – and was therefore referred to as "bacterial mass," among other terms. Very basic observations were described: for example how the quantity of bacterial, fungal or planktonic biomass changed depending on the season in different waters. Biomass in this context primarily meant microorganisms. In the mid-1960s, for example, organism biomass was used as a measure to demonstrate disturbances in natural food chains.
Biomass as a limited energy source
Since the 1970s, plant biomass has increasingly become the focus of applied research: on the one hand, because of the research and development of fertilizers; on the other hand, because of the oil crisis. The oil crisis meant that industrial alcohol, which at that time was produced synthetically from petroleum raw materials (gas and oil), suddenly became too expensive. People therefore fell back on the natural processes of fermentation and the experience that an ethyl alcohol of equivalent quality and performance could be produced from cereal grains and cellulosic raw materials in a fermentation process – as so-called bioethanol.
Since the biologically produced alcohol was also to be used as an admixture for fuels and enormous quantities of it were needed, especially in the USA, it was important to be able to produce it on a large scale and in an economically competitive manner. The term "biomass" as a feedstock was thus coined – an unlimited raw material for the provision of energy; initially in the form of alcohol, later also in the form of biogas.
As is well known, the joy over the new energy source was short-lived. In the 2000s, the "plate or tank debate" flared up, because what went or goes into the tank as plant biomass is correspondingly lacking as food or feed. With regard to sustainable economic growth, not only the land issue was a topic of discussion, but also the accompanying increase in environmentally damaging monocultures.
We now know that there is a limited amount of biomass available for the provision of energy. Accordingly, it should only be used in a targeted manner, e.g. to close material cycles or supply gaps in a sustainable energy system (Thrän 2020).
Biomass is now seen as the most important pillar in the bioeconomy concept (Sherwood 2020). In order to increase sustainability in the economy, greater use is now being made of residual materials as "biomass", including from agriculture, forestry, fisheries or horticulture. In most cases, they do not compete with food or feed production and are therefore ideal for further utilization.
Often unrecognized: value creation potential of biomass
In industry, there is often a lack of biological knowledge to identify substitution potential and value creation potential in material flows (Thrän 2020). Even if industrial residues are already being used, there is often further potential for higher-value and/ or more efficient use in the sense of the bioeconomy. According to experts, biogenic residues and biomass from wood and agriculture also offer potential for material recycling (Schüch and Hennig 2020).
Biomass: food of the future?
Another form of biomass use is as food. Microalgae, for example, rich in proteins, omega fatty acids, and vitamins and cultivated in sustainable aqua systems, could play an important role in our diet in the future as a supplier of raw materials. (KIT Campusreport 2017, 10.5445/DIVA/2017-494). Microalgae-based fish feed could make fish production in aquacultures more sustainable.
A Finnish company sees completely synthetic biomass as a model for the future: Solar Foods uses a fermentation process to produce so-called single-cell protein, i.e. protein that comes from individual cells instead of complex organisms, and requires only electricity, water from the air, CO2 and a few nutrients. Neither agricultural land nor aquacultures nor animal husbandry are necessary − the protein production of the future?
Microorganisms as "functional biomass“
Back to the biomass that BRAIN Biotech, for example, is developing for special purposes: this is what is known as "functional biomass." It refers to microorganisms that fulfill certain functions in the course of fermentation processes and have been "trained" accordingly beforehand. For example, they are intended to produce substances that can be used as bioactive ingredients in food or animal feed. Or they serve to produce biobased chemical products or their building blocks from the starting material CO2.
Conclusion: Microbial functional biomass is not the same as plant biomass, which can be used as a raw or residual material in the circular value chain and can be put to new use in a conversion process. Extremely valuable are both, each in its own way.
Egbert G, Leigh Jr. On the relation between the poroductivity, biomass, diversity, and stability of a community. Zoology Vol 53, 1965 https://www.pnas.org/content/53/4/777
Miller DL. Fermentation ethyl alcohol. Biotechnol Bioeng Symp. 1976;(6):307-12. PMID: 1000074
Thrän D. Einführung in das System Bioökonomie. In: Thrän D, Moesenfechtel U. (Ed.) Das System Bioökonomie. Springer Spektrum 2020
Schüch A und Hennig C: Abfall- und reststoffbasierte Bioökonomie. In: Thrän D, Moesenfechtel U. (Ed.) Das System Bioökonomie. Springer Spektrum 2020
Sherwood J. The significance of biomass in a circular economy. Bioresour Technol. 2020 Mar;300:122755. doi: 10.1016/j.biortech.2020.122755. Epub 2020 Jan 9. PMID: 31956060
Smirnov E. S. et al.: The Accumulation of the Biomass in the Carrion Fly Phormia groenlandica. Medical Parasitology 1934 Vol.3 No.5 pp.401-402 pp. https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19351000268
In a Nutshell:
• From the middle of the twentieth century, scientists described the quantity of microorganisms in a particular biotope or in a food chain as biomass.
• The oil crisis in the 1970s lent new significance to biomass, which is now being tested and used as a substitute for fossil raw materials.
• Meanwhile one goal of the circular bioeconomy is to maximize the use and recycling of biomass, primarily that which accumulates as residual or waste streams. Such organic residual or waste streams can be given greater value through further utilization. Their return to the economy corresponds to the principle of the circular economy or circular value creation.
• Biomass is already being utilized in a variety of ways: with the help of biotechnological processes it is being converted into chemicals, products, energy or heat. Within the conversion process, the biomass feedstock can in turn itself become a feedstock for further processes or a recyclable residual material.
• Recognizing potentials: To promote a circular, biobased economy, more types of biomass need to be leveraged. BRAIN Biotech´s experienced biotechnologists and engineers can help identify substitution and value creation potential in existing side and waste streams.
• In biotechnology, "functional biomass" refers to microorganisms that are "trained" and used as cell mass in the fermentation process, e.g., in order to
a) produce special enzymes or substances;
b) process plant residues;
c) bind metals and thus enable their sustainable extraction (green mining);
d) produce spores that can be used as probiotics;
e) accumulate phosphate and contribute to more sustainable fertilization.
Talking with BRAIN Biotech that specializes in industrial biotechnology can help to to identify substitution potential and value creation potential in material flows. Contact us to find out how we can help you.
- We find and optimize enzymes, microorganisms and bioactive substances and use them in technical applications.
- We generate additional added value for existing products.
- We develop solutions for the sustainable utilization of biomass from side streams.
- With our many years of experience, we advise on substitution potentials in various industrial processes and applications.