The “petroleum era” will sooner rather than later come to an end and will open the opportunity to move towards a circular and sustainable bioeconomy, in which production is done in an intelligent way and the need for new raw materials is minimized. This is the path followed by the Technological Development Unit, UDT, of the UdeC, to contribute with applied research to our future.

Until not many years ago, the life cycle of a product was: “produce – use – discard”; this is the basis of a typical Linear Economy that we adopted during the 20th century. However, there is the possibility of extending the useful life of products and designing them so that they do not constitute waste at the end of their useful life: the Circular Economy. If this principle is intertwined with the replacement of oil by renewable raw materials, a new production paradigm emerges that can change the way in which we generate the products that current and future society requires: the Circular Bioeconomy.

Living off what the earth gives us

“While the concepts of Bioeconomy and Circular Economy are new, the principles behind them are old,” says Dr. Alex Berg, Director of the Technological Development Unit, UDT, at the University of Concepción. “Our society has lived off products from the land for thousands of years. In fact, until a few years ago, we dressed mainly with wool and leather, renewable raw materials that were produced locally, without depredating nature. However, along with the massive advent of oil – not only as a fuel, but also as a raw material for textile fibers, electrical equipment and utensils of many different kinds – came the throwaway culture”.

Researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs and governments around the world recognize that we must reduce our dependence on oil for economic, environmental, social and strategic reasons. This recognition drives the development of bio-based processes and products and the cascading use of raw materials, following the principles of a circular model. Biomass is the only renewable feedstock that can replace fossil resources: coal, natural gas and oil.

While the circular bioeconomy focuses on the reuse of materials, the closing of the circle cannot be complete; a make-up or replenishment will always be required. By-products from forestry and agricultural industries are an excellent source for this purpose.

Circular industries

In our country we have several examples of industries that can become circular models, such as the wine industry. The cultivation of vines and the processing of grapes generates various by-products that are not currently being used, such as vine shoots, seeds or skins, “together with fruit and wine, there is the possibility that specialized productive activities may arise to produce antioxidants, industrial additives, chemical precursors and food supplements”, says Alex Berg. At UDT we have executed different projects that have addressed this challenge, some with very good and promising results, focused on the food, pharmaceutical, chemical and livestock industries.

In the case of timber and forestry activities, bark, pine cones, sawdust or sandpaper dust are underutilized by-products, which can also be a source of high-value products. Examples include tannins or fungicides extracted from pine bark, nanometer-sized plastic reinforcements generated from cellulose, or additives for plastics based on wood dust, all of which UDT has been working on for several years. “There are many by-products that can be exploited that are available in large quantities. We must learn how to sustainably use these resources, contributing to strengthening their value chain,” says the Director of UDT.

“I am convinced that these productive alternatives not only make ecological sense, but also strategic and economic sense. Their implementation is open to small and medium-sized technology-based companies, favors local economic development and opens up new possibilities for stable and well-paid employment.”

“What does UDT do? Basically, to develop economically feasible, environmentally benign and socially accepted technology,” Dr. Berg concludes. The “petroleum era” is coming to an end, making way for new forms of production integrated with natural cycles and close to people, as proposed by the Circular Bioeconomy.