Biorefinery: ‘The potential for farmers to diversify their business in the future’

Biorefinery – which converts biomass to energy and other beneficial by-products – could potentially add more value to an outside block of land, according to UCD lecturer, Bridget Lynch.

Speaking to AgriLand at the National Ploughing Championships this week, James Gaffey, a researcher in IT Tralee along with his colleague Bridget Lynch gave us an insight into biorefinery, its benefits and the potential for farmers to diversify their business into bioeconomy.

Both Bridget and James are involved in the recently launched project known as Biorefinery Glas – which is being carried out between IT Tralee and the Carbery Group on five farms in west Cork – where a small-scale biorefinery project is being carried out.

What is biorefinery?

Explaining what biorefinery is, James said: “In a biorefinery system we are looking at extracting all kinds of high-value materials, such as the extraction of protein, biomas chemicals and plastics from renewable materials like grass, straw and wood.”

Although it is only in the very early stages of development in Ireland, James explained how this process could potentially provide an extra income for farmers in the future while reducing our environmental impact.

“At the moment the farmer is simply feeding grass to the cow; that is one product. If we use a biorefinery approach we can produce four different co-products.

The farmer can still feed the cow with the fibre fraction and there is then three different co-products which can go into different high-value markets.

In terms of reducing our environmental impact, biorefinery can reduce feed imports – particularly soya bean meal for pigs – through turning the protein in the grass into a usable form for non-ruminants.

How can it benefit a farm system?

Bridget went on then to explain how a farmer can use biorefinery to add more value to an outside block of land which may not be farmed as intensively as the home block.

“A lot of farmers are faced with the challenge of farm fragmentation.

However, with biorefinery they can have their core enterprise on the home block and they can give added value to an outside block of land – through receiving a premium for the co-products that they produce.

“In addition, they can use the fibre fraction known as press-cake, as a forage source for over the winter and also the biofertiliser – which is left over at the end of the process – can be applied back onto the harvested land.”

Finally, Bridget mentioned the results of a study which was completed outside of Ireland on press-cake where they found it maintained, or in some cases increased, milk production and lead to a significant reduction in nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) excretion.