Zelcor – High added value bio-based products from lignocellulosic biorefinery wastes

There is a considerable number of observations about the infrastructure and communicative habits of social insects, i.e. those living in a colony or a group. They perfectly organize themselves in colonies and they generate products that human beings can benefit from. But what about termites, social insects eating 24 hours per day, commonly known as silent destroyers with destructive power? One current challenge for research and innovation consists in turning these destructive activities into a constructive approach: that means developing an industrial insect-based biorefinery to contribute to the new ‘’bio-based’’ economy in Europe.

Zelcor Consortium Group.
Zelcor Consortium Group.

A consortium of 17 partners consisting of European companies and public research institutes are exploiting this termites’ potential to demonstrate the feasibility of transforming recalcitrant by-products considered as waste, namely lignins- and humins-rich streams, into high- added value materials, including functional biopolymers, lignin oligomers and phenolic monomers. This public-private partnership benefits support from the European Union through the H2020 BBI JU “Zelcor” project, a 4-year project aimed at developing zero-waste lignocellulosic biorefineries by integrated lignin valorisation.

The presence of recalcitrant by-products in the side streams of lignocellulosic biorefineries is common and costly issue. The term ‘recalcitrant’ is given to those biomass fractions that are slowly biodegradable or non-biodegradable. This include: 1) Lignocellulosic residues being resistant to the enzymatic hydrolysis performed for the production of 2nd generation (2G) ethanol, 2) Biomolecules being extracted in order to improve both the conversion and valorisation of cellulose such as industrial lignins and 3) Compounds being formed by side reactions occuring during the conversion of sugars such as humins.

The objective of the project is to find a sustainable technical solution for the conversion of the above-mentioned by-products. In the ecosystem we live, insects and their gut microbes play a central role in the degradation of these complex by-products. For this reason, Zelcor partners scrape together to make use of this natural system for breaking such complex biomass.

Depolymerised lignin fractions.
Depolymerised lignin fractions.

Zelcor concept is to combine this biological conversion route with chemical and enzymatic catalyses, in order to develop an integrated flexible biorefinery system for the conversion of heterogeneous and variable recalcitrant by-products. The system is expected to provide several high added-value intermediate bioproducts available for the formulation of coating materials, packaging plastics and cosmetics. The project overviews a ‘zero-waste’ goal through a cascading approach based on sequential fractionation, depolymerisation and refining, with valorisation of the streams generated at each stage. Zelcor is envisaging two pathways to set-up lignins/humins new value chains. The first one addresses the market demands for previously known specific functionalities with sourcing diversification from biorefineries by-products. These functionalities include antioxidant, emulsifying and biological activity. The second pathway explores new functionalities resulting both from new types of raw materials and new kinds of conversion processes, particularly in the field of nanotechnologies. Thus, Zelcor is designed to be rooted upstream in the reality of 2G biorefinery and downstream in the reality of the bio-based product market. It aims at settling new value chains for biorefinery side streams.

With a strong industry drive, the project is focused on producing functional molecules being extracted from renewable carbon sources answering the market demands in the packaging, chemical and cosmetics sectors. Considering the growing market demand for technical enzymes in industries, special attention will be paid to provide enzymes for biomass deconstruction and the benefits brought by insects and their gut microbiota.

About Zelcor: The Zelcor project comprises 17 organizations from 8 European countries, including 7 academia, 8 SMEs, and 2 corporations. More specifically, Zelcor partners are: Aalto-Korkeakoulusaatio (Finland), Ardilla Technologies UK Ltd (UK), Arterra Bioscience SRL (Italy), Avantium Chemicals BV (Netherlands), Biome Technologies PLC (UK), INRA – Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (France), INRA TRANSFERT S.A.( France), INERIS – Institut National de L’Environnement et des Risques (France), nova-Institut für politische and ökologische Innovation GmbH (Germany), Quantis SARL (Switzerland), Sabic Petrochemicals BV (Netherlands), Tereos Participations (France), Stichting Wageningen Research (Netherlands), The University of Warwick (UK), Universite Paris XII Val de Marne (France), W 42 Industrial Biotechnology GmbH (Germany), YNSECT (France).


This research consortium is coordinated by INRA (France). The project received 6.7M€ funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the grant agreement No. 720303. For further information, visit Zelcor website.

This article is by Seena Koyadan, Dissemination & Communication (Chemicals, building blocks & polymers, Biotechnology), nova-Institut.

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