UCD’s Prof Shane Ward outlines the AgroCycle project, which addresses the application of the ‘circular economy’ across the agri-food sector by utilising agri-food waste streams as valuable feedstock for downstream processes

The UCD School of Biosystems and Food Engineering is leading a major research and innovation project on the application of the ‘circular economy’ across the agri-food industry. The ‘circular economy’ aims to reduce waste while also making best use of the ‘wastes’ produced – the so called ‘valorisation’ of waste.

Led by Prof Shane Ward, FIEI, this Horizon 2020 EU-China collaborative project has 26 partners from across the EU, China and Hong Kong. The consortium comprises research organisations, large businesses and SMEs, as well as representative associations. In addition to UCD, there are four other Irish organisations involved:

  • Carton Group (Manor Farm), with a focus on using chicken manure as feedstock for anaerobic digestion;
  • EnviroEye, which provides the engineering solutions on anaerobic digestion;
  • The National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM), which provides a novel, early-stage education programme aimed at enhancing the awareness of ‘circular economy’ amongst the youth – the next generation; and
  • Carr Communications, providing a comprehensive communication programme to ensure high impact.

AgroCycle positions UCD and Ireland centre-stage internationally in this rapidly developing domain. Launched last month at UCD by the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, its significance was highlighted by the Commissioner: “The School of Biosystems and Food Engineering has a tradition of research activity, based on a strong collaborative approach, as proven by the large and successful grant application for AgroCycle, under Prof Shane Ward and his colleagues.”

The fact that AgroCycle won against intense competition was also noted. he said: “AgroCycle was one of just two projects funded [AgroCycle led by UCD and NoAW led by INRA (France)] under the particular Horizon 2020 call, out of over 180 applications. This speaks volumes for the consortium and UCD’s global standing.”

The need for a ‘circular’ agricultural system

Continuing population and consumption growth are driving global food demand, with agricultural activity expanding to keep pace. Modern agricultural systems produce excessive waste streams, with Europe generating some 700 million tonnes of agri-food (agricultural and food) waste each year along the entire agri-food chain.

Agri-food waste is categorised based on each stakeholder’s perspective – in general, it is classified as residues, by products, co products or wasted products. Ultimately, when analysing the entire agri-food chain, approximately one third of produce produced for human consumption is wasted.

Modern agriculture is resource intensive and generates large amounts of materials that are not suitable for consumption. From the inefficient utilisation of inputs (crops absorb just 30-50% of applied fertilisers and absorb less than 35% of water applied to fields) to the generation of avoidable and unavoidable wastes across the agri-food supply chain, significant opportunities exist to innovate by creating added-value products from these agri-food wastes towards delivering sustainable value chains in farming and processing sectors.

AgroCycle JPEG

AgroCycle for a circular economy (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

The ‘circular economy’ presents numerous opportunities to turn otherwise under utilised and under appreciated agricultural waste, co-products and by-products (AWCB) into high-value products and feedstocks. AgroCycle will address such opportunities directly by developing a protocol for the implementation of the ‘circular economy’ across the agri-food sector. It will address the valorisation of wastes from several agricultural sectors reflecting the pan-EU and Chinese consortium: wastes from wine, olive oil, horticulture, fruit, grassland, potatoes, swine, dairy and poultry.

The EU Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC) provides a definition of waste as ‘items that people no longer have any use for, which they either intend to get rid of or have already discarded’. However, many of these perceived wastes do have an economic value that, with new technology, can be more effectively exploited.

Avoiding the generation of agri-food wastes should remain the priority, as enshrined in the waste hierarchy established in the Directive. However, not all wastes can be avoided, and the emergence of the ‘circular’ bioeconomy is driving the utilisation of these biological resources for the production of value-added products, such as fertilisers, fuels, chemicals, bio-based products and bioenergy. Agri-food wastes have important and valuable characteristics, such as high macronutrient (N, P, K), micronutrient, and energy content.

These characteristics of agri-food wastes make their recovery and valorisation a potentially lucrative activity. Such principles are not new, with some agri-food waste being exploited for decades. Animal manure is predominantly used locally as a fertiliser on agricultural land due to its value as a nutrient source and soil conditioner. Farmers utilise crop residues such as straw to maintain soil organic matter levels and improve soil structure. Whether or not such an approach is the most effective and efficient from environmental and economic perspectives is questionable and will be addressed in the AgroCycle project.

The AgroCycle project’s first task is to conduct an analysis of the agri-food waste value chain, which is essential to understanding the potential of the bioeconomy, and the availability of feedstocks through characterising and quantifying waste streams to identify the various valorisation pathways.

Developing the building blocks of the bioeconomy

The production of bio-based fuels is central to the bioeconomy. Processing techniques such as anaerobic digestion (AD) are enabling the valorisation of agricultural wastes to produce cleaner fuels, electricity and valuable fertilisers. AgroCycle will further develop AD capabilities for poultry and dairy manures with focus on the optimal recovery and re-use of energy, nutrients and water in a typical farm AD unit, including the reduction of pathogens by the use of excess heat from the CHP.

Enviroeye will oversee the installation of a pilot AD plant at a Carton Group plant, using ‘dry AD’ based on poultry litter. In addition to AD, the production of liquid fuel, such as ethanol and butanol will also be researched. AgroCycle will focus on improving pre-treatment process efficiency, developing simple, easy to implement and feasible technologies for degradation and hydrolysis of biomass and maximising ethanol yield employing simple fermentation strategies.

Modern agriculture systems employ significant amounts of mineral derived fertilisers to sustain the yield of nutrient-depleted soils – placing reliance on energy intensive and geo-politically challenging procurement of minerals e.g. phosphorus.

A sustainable agricultural system must ensure the maximum recycling of nutrients. The production of biofertilisers aims at reusing naturally produced materials, such as animal effluents or crop wastes for extracting important elements in plant production.

In this regard, AgroCycle will develop and test the effectiveness of biofertilisers such as lignosulfonates from pruning wastes which are rich in fulvic acids improving the organic level of soils and several complexing micronutrients; digestate from anaerobic digestion processes which contain N in quite stable forms while reducing pathogen load; or phyto-reduced N and P pig slurry which allows for a larger amount of wastewater to be disposed of on fields.

In addition, the project will evaluate the efficiency of existing natural fertilisers such as straw or crop wastes, new natural fertilisers such as rice bran; and evaluate optimal application practices in order to produce sustainable farming systems recommendations and guidelines, including updated soil organic carbon maps.

Novel chemicals and bio-polymers

In addition to the more traditional use of agri-food wastes, the bioeconomy can utilise various agricultural resources and employ a number of technology pathways to produce novel value-added products such as chemicals, biopolymers, nutraceuticals, etc. Biorefinery concepts can be employed depending on the type of feedstock, availability and application to maximise the value that can be extracted.

These concepts focus on utilising agri-food waste along a cascade, employing specific technologies to isolate components, which are assigned their own economic value depending on their applications. The AgroCycle consortium will investigate integrated multi-feedstock extraction of proteins, fibres and secondary plant metabolites (SPM) from horticultural waste streams, such as potato pulp, through the construction of pilot facilities.

This work is further extended to demonstrate the application of extracted biocompounds in nutraceuticals, active packaging, adhesives and coating applications. Bulk packaging materials from the extracted proteins, fibres and biopolymers will be developed and evaluated to understand their viability and potential.

As well as the economic viability of new value chains for agri-food wastes, evaluating the environmental performance is crucial in determining the suitability and ultimate realisation of potential pathways. Life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology is one tool that can be used to assess the potential environmental impact of a product or system against its comparator.

LCA has been used predominantly to assess the environmental implications of a system but social LCA and life cycle costing are becoming more prevalent, allowing for a holistic analysis of policy implications. Environmental LCAs and Life Cycle Cost (LCC) assessments will be performed by the research team of Prof Nick Holden at UCD, and will include all the techno-economic aspects of the technologies to confirm their cost effectiveness, as well as issues such as efficiencies, consumptions, and the ability to recover and reuse materials.

A novel aspect of AgroCycle is a Sino-EU collaborative effort on researching the use of Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology to convert biodegradable materials present in waste into electricity. While MFCs are technically still quite far from attaining acceptable levels of power output, since the performance of this type of fuel cell is affected by limitations based on irreversible reactions and processes occurring both on the anode and cathode side, the AgroCycle team envisage making significant advances in this domain.

Led by Exergy (UK-based SME) and supported by Nanjing Institute of Technology (China), the team will research a number of biological and engineering aspects related to improvement of MFC performance including the effect of parameters such as pH, temperature, feed rate, shear stress and organic load. The overall objective is to develop solutions to increase power outputs delivered by MFC technology.

AgroCycle HUB

Ireland has the opportunity to become a global leader in the application of the ‘circular economy’ to the agri-food industry. With this in mind, the AgroCycle project will provide a platform for Irish industry, researchers and other interested stakeholders to interact with the consortium at various levels. This will be done by establishing the AgroCycle HUB to facilitate national and global networking and support commercial interaction, knowledge exchange and the development and implementation of commercialisation strategies.

With 26 international partners, including five SMEs and three large enterprises, within the AgroCycle partnership, and a network of organisations to be added via the AgroCycle HUB, the project is strategically positioned for enhanced research performance and successful post-project commercial exploitation of the outputs. The HUB will afford members the opportunity to engage with the consortium, and propose research work of relevance and commercial benefit to the partners.

It will also provide a commercial exploitation forum. This is turn is an enabler for innovation in other sectors that transform and process these wastes into sustainably sourced materials. AgroCycle’s approach is to open up technology pathways to enable the production of cost-effective and sustainable commercial products from AWCB that will deliver a range of positive impacts for Ireland and the global economy.

AAgroCycle-GroupAgroCycle was launched by Mr Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. AgroCycle is a Sino-EU consortium with 26 partners and a total budget of ca. €8 million. Carton Group (Manor Farm) led by Justin Carton (2nd from right) will install a pilot anaerobic digestion plant utilising chicken manure as feedstock. IRIS (SME, Spain), led by Oonagh Mcnerney (2nd from left) are focusing on high value added downstream bio-chemicals. The team at the Chinese University of Agriculture (Beijing), led by Professor Han, Dean of Engineering (1st on left), is collaborating on utilising Chinese technology. The Greek team at Certh (led by Professor Karabelas, on far right) is leading the task of assessing the potential of the agri-food waste resource in Europe and China. The Commissioner also launched the European Research Council (ERC) advanced sensors research laboratory led by Associate Professor Aoife Gowen (1st on right of Commissioner).

Pictured are: Prof Han (CAU, Beijing), Oonagh McNerney (Director, IRIS), Isabelle Van Borm (European Commission Project Officer for AgroCycle), Commissioner Hogan, Associate Professor Gowen (Head of ERC laboratory), UCD President (Professor Deekes), Professor Shane Ward (Leader AgroCycle), Justin Carton (Director, Manor Farm Chickens) and Professor Anastasios Karabelas (CERTH, Greece).

Contact: agrocycle@ucd.ie  or see www.agrocycle.eu for more information. 

Authors: Prof Shane Ward FIEI and Eoin White BE MSc,UCD School of Biosystems and Food Engineering, Belfield, Dublin 4

https://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/AgroCycle_2016_Launch.jpghttps://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/AgroCycle_2016_Launch.jpgDavid O'RiordanBioagriculture,biotechnology,food,sustainability,UCD,waste
The UCD School of Biosystems and Food Engineering is leading a major research and innovation project on the application of the ‘circular economy’ across the agri-food industry. The ‘circular economy’ aims to reduce waste while also making best use of the ‘wastes’ produced – the so called ‘valorisation’ of...