June 30, 2006


Creating Biomass-based Industrial Complexes (Ebara Corporation)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.46 (June 2006)
Towards a Sustainable Japan--Corporations at Work Article Series No.45:

On March 31, 2006, the Japanese government endorsed a revision of the Biomass Nippon Strategy, a national project to promote biomass use originally launched at the end of 2002. After reviewing the key issues and policies for enhanced implementation of related projects, the revision included promotion of biomass energy as transportation fuel and acceleration of the Biomass Town Program aimed at enhancing the use of un-utilized biomass resources. (Japanese)

The definition of biomass being used in this context is organic resources from plant and animal origin such as animal waste, food waste, woodchips and rice chaff; fossil fuel resources are not included.

Biomass is derived from organic matter produced through photosynthesis by plants using solar energy, water and carbon dioxide (CO2), and is renewable within the range of several months to several decades. Although biomass generates carbon dioxide when it is burned, the emitted CO2 is regarded as offset through CO2 absorption during the growing process of the plants in a life cycle perspective. Thus the biomass energy process is considered "carbon neutral."

Un-utilized biomass resources in Japan include: 80 percent of food waste (about 17.6 million tons), over 40 percent of paper waste (about 16 million tons), 70 percent of nonfood agricultural crop residue such as rice husks and chaff (about 8.4 million tons), most wood waste from forestry, including wood from thinning the forest and from damaged trees (about 3.7 million tons), and 36 percent of sewage sludge (about 27 million tons). Effective utilization of these resources is expected in the future.

Ebara Corporation is a major manufacturer of machinery that originally started producing industrial pumps in 1912. It produces machinery and systems for managing fluids and semiconductor production equipment, while offering environmental engineering services for systems such as solid waste and water treatment facilities. It is also engaged in developing new energy resources such as wind power generation and fuel cell cogeneration systems. In Japan, Ebara has 101 subsidiaries and 18 affiliate companies, which as a group employ about 15,000 employees. It also has employees in 21 countries. It has sales of about 515 billion yen (US$4.4 billion), with overseas sales accounting for a quarter of the total in 2005.

Ebara was one of the first companies to start working on becoming an environment-friendly enterprise and contributing to creation of a sustainable society. By the mid 1990s, the company was focusing on the concept of "zero emissions," which aims at minimizing resource use and waste production, and established a committee to achieve this goal.

In 2002, Ebara proposed the concept of creating "Biomass Industrial Complexes" as its major approach to achieving a sustainable society. As most of the wastes handled by Ebara are derived from biomass, the company came up with the idea that such a complex would comprise an ideally environment-friendly industrial system by embodying a sustainable social system that would utilize biomass for both energy and material resources and be based on zero emission technologies. (Japanese)

Kazuyoshi Terashima, the head of Ebara's Environmental Engineering Group, says, "The most important issue for the global environment is how to reduce CO2 emissions. In a recycling-oriented society that takes advantage of biomass, the CO2 level would never increase, even if biomass residue is finally burned as waste. In order to establish this kind of sustainable society, it is essential to reduce the use of fossil fuels and develop biomass-related industry."

In Japan, some municipalities have been promoting the establishment of "Biomass Town" projects to promote the maximum use of biomass, with the additional aims of creating new local industries and stimulating the local economy. Ebara is currently involved in some of these projects.

One example involves Yamada Town in Chiba Prefecture, where industries, government bodies and academics have jointly conducted experimental studies of a multiple biomass utilization system. This system uses resources such as animal waste, agricultural residues, thinned wood and other forestry residues, and employs technologies for fermenting and absorbing methane, carbonization, steam explosions, and composting. It makes complete use of the biomass, utilizing intermediate products and recycling energy produced back into the system. In concrete terms, it is expected to use biogas produced by methane fermentation as fuel for light trucks that transport the biomass while extracting concentrated liquid fertilizer by carbonizing fermentation residues.

Since biomass itself has a low energy density, or low added value, it is not appropriate for transportation over long distances. Optimally efficient ways of using biomass within a limited local area need to be explored. In order to enhance the utility value of biomass, it is also essential to apply cascading methods in which resource residues and energy are used repeatedly before final disposal at the very end of the process.

In addition to considering economic and operative efficiency, Ebara strives to integrate the various technologies and know-how it has gained through its business experience in industrial wastewater treatment, solid waste (including municipal waste) disposal, and the elimination of air pollutants. This is one of the company's main strengths, enabling it to identify the best possible system for a specific area. Ebara is one of the few companies in the world that can make use of comprehensive technologies to help protect the global environment.

The company has also been actively developing biomass businesses overseas. One of these involves cooperation with Malaysian entities under the National Biotechnology Policy (NBP) of Malaysia, published in April 2005. Under this policy, the Malaysian government plans to help its bio-industry grow so that it eventually accounts for 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020.

In a joint venture with a company in Malaysia, Ebara also plans to initiate production of bio-products from oil palm waste and sago palm starch, use animal waste to produce energy, and, where feasible, to produce other plant-based materials and foodstuffs.

Oil palm cultivation is a major industry in Malaysia, but the huge amount of waste left over after extracting the palm oil is simply burned or discarded, with significant impacts on the environment. Ebara now plans to use this waste material from palm oil mills, called empty fruit bunches (EFB), in order to extract lignin, cellulose and hemi-cellulose. Lignin can be used to produce lignophenol, which can be used as a bio-adhesive to make wood-plastics. At the same time, bioethanol can be produced through the saccharification of cellulose and hemi-cellulose, and used to fuel automobiles. Post-extraction residues can be burned to generate electricity and steam, and the ashes used as a fertilizer. Furthermore, because methane gas is generated in the treatment process of palm oil mill effluent, Ebara aims to obtain emission credits through a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project to collect this methane gas for fuel use.

Meanwhile, sago palm contains a lot of starch and has so far only been utilized to produce edible starch, but this starch can also be converted into lactic acid through a process of simultaneous saccharification and fermentation. Then, polylactic acid, which is obtained by polymerizing lactic acid, can be used to make a biodegradable plastic. Extracted cellulose and residues also can be used to produce polylactic acid through enzymatic saccharification. Other waste such as tree bark and leaves can be burned or gasified for electricity or steam to power the production of polylactic acid. Ebara intends to build such a plant in Malaysia, hoping to create new jobs and contribute to the development of local industry.

Animal waste is partly used to generate electricity by burning or methane fermentation, and the rest is used as compost or manure. A new research field involves special methods of plant cultivation to produce beneficial compounds with disease-preventative functions. These substances are produced when vegetables are grown under stressful moisture and temperature conditions. This research is a collaborative effort between Ebara and a Malaysian research institute.

Financing, development of sales channels for bio-products such as polylactic acid, and acquisition of polymerization technology are the next steps that need to be taken to commercialize these projects. Ebara will have to cooperate with other companies to accomplish this. Many business entities have this kind of advanced technology and know-how, but few companies have made as strong a commitment Ebara has to creating a sustainable society based on biomass industry. How Ebara manages to elicit this kind of commitment from other companies will be a key factor in pushing the joint venture forward.

Terashima says, "In future, we would like to establish sago palm plantations and build a plant to produce polylactic acid from sago starch on Borneo Island. Our dream is to promote biomass products all over the world in the form of high value-added biodegradable plastics made from biomass."

In the past, most every-day products were made from natural materials, that is, biomass. People took good care of them and end-of-life products were returned to the soil. Unlike products and energy derived from petroleum, such biomass products did not pose problems of hazardous substances and waste proliferation or cause global warming. Many eyes are on Ebara as it takes up the challenge of trying to establish a sustainable society by incorporating earth- and human-friendly material and energy resources derived from biomass into current industrial systems and closing the material flow loop.

(Staff writer Eriko Saijo)