UC researchers explore waste from the forest and agrifood sectors in the context of biorefineries

A team of researchers from the University of Coimbra (UC) explored the potential for valuing four by-products from the forestry and agrifood sectors in the context of a biorefinery, thus contributing to the bio-economy, a concept promoted worldwide, with the aim of replacing resources fossils and find new strategies for waste management.

The biorefinery consists of making full use of biomass, producing value-added products and/or energy from various raw materials, that is, taking advantage of all that is extracted from nature, reducing waste as much as possible and without causing ecological damage.

The residues selected by the team led by António Portugal, from the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra (FCTUC), were branches and stumps of pine, decomposing tomatoes and wine wastewater, residues very abundant in our country. For example, Portugal is one of the largest European tomato producers. In 2018 alone, it had 1.2 million tonnes, generating high wastes, particularly in relation to decomposing tomatoes.

After a thorough evaluation of the properties of these residues, followed by several extractions of compounds obtained by sustainable techniques, the team identified in the pine residues the presence of substances with strong antioxidant activity and a compound that has potential as a repellent/insecticide.

«In addition to demonstrating that the four residues are promising for the Portuguese bio-based economy, the big surprise was to find compounds with antioxidant and repellent properties in the stumps and branches of the pine trees, respectively. These extracts with antioxidant properties can be incorporated into cosmetic products or food and pharmaceutical products », reveal Marisa Gaspar and Mara Braga, researchers at the Research Center for Engineering of Chemical Processes and Forest Products (CIEPQPF) of FCTUC.

The great novelty of this project, according to the researchers, is to take advantage of these by-products before reaching the energy production phase. «Although there are already some biorefineries, essentially for the production of biogas and bioethanol, there are still raw materials that are not explored, mainly in the agricultural and forestry industries. Therefore, the objective of this work was to characterize four abundant residues in our country to analyze their potential in the context of biorefineries ».

This investigation was carried out within the scope of the project “MultiBiorefinery – Multi-purpose strategies for broadband Agro-forest and fisheries by-products: a step forward for a truly integrated biorefinery”, inserted in a consortium of six research units led by the University of Aveiro ( UA).

The “MultiBiorefinery” aims to develop and use multipurpose strategies and innovative and sustainable technologies, using industrial biotechnology and green chemistry, to value by-products in order to move towards a truly integrated biorefinery capable of handling diverse raw materials. The project was funded by COMPETE 2020 within the scope of the Support System for Scientific and Technological Research: Joint Activities Programs.

The next phase of the research, which began in 2016, will focus on exploring the possibility of developing “edible polymeric films, that is, coating food with edible and biodegradable packaging, in order to replace the plastics currently used for this purpose”, say Marisa Gaspar and Mara Braga.

Part of the work that has been carried out is in the magazine ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering. You can consult the article: here.

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