Florence Gschwend, the innovative entrepreneur and PhD graduate from Imperial College in London, is one of three founders (along with Jason Hallett and Agi Brandt) of the spinout startup, Chrysalix Technologies, that’s aiming to disrupt and revolutionize the fossil fuel industry by turning waste wood (and other biomass) into bioplastics and biofuel.
Listen to our full podcast interview with Florence here or watch the video:
We had a fascinating discussion with Florence at Chrysalix Technologies’ lab. Florence has won numerous awards for her work in the use of waste wood for biorefinery applications. She was named as one of Europe’s most promising gamechangers under 30 by Forbes. And now, she’s using her skills to help future-proof our environment.
And part of future-proofing our planet, she explains, is identifying how to get the most out of the materials the world currently produces (and discards) “we need to find a way of living more sustainably without compromising our own quality of life and of future generations, we need to start learning how to get more out of the resources we have, rather than throwing away, for example, half of the food we produce”.
To achieve that and to disrupt the 150 year old and highly optimized petrochemical industry requires not only a fair bit of innovative technology but also some out of the box thinking. That’s where the bioeconomy and Chrysalix Technologies come in. Of course, the bioeconomy has not been without its own drawbacks…
Biomass (i.e. renewable plant material) can be used to make biofuels and bioplastics. For example, you take a bunch of biomass and you either turn it into biodegradable cups or cutlery or chairs or you mix it in with petrol or diesel or jet fuel, and voilà you’re reducing your carbon footprint and saving the planet, right? Unfortunately “bio” as a prefix is not an eco-friendly guarantee!
As it turns out (which was news to us), most of the biomass used for biofuels and bioplastics today actually comes from food plants which are edible (corn from USA, sugar cane from Brazil, palm oil from South East Asia and rapeseed from Europe and Asia). In other words, most of that ‘eco-friendly’ biomass that’s either being burned as fuel or turned into plastics is actually food that you or I could eat. If that doesn’t make sense, that’s great. It shouldn’t. But that’s not quite the end of the rabbit warren. Not only does growing and burning this type of biomass in some instances (especially in the case of palm oil) create more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel, when you also consider that food grade biomass also requires millions of hectares of limited fertile and arable soil and massive amounts of chemically toxic and environmentally damaging pesticides and insecticides it makes about as much sense as drilling holes in your life raft. Of course, this issue is not without complexity. Thanks to local politics and incentivized + dependent communities, there’s no short term or easy fix.
That’s where Florence and her team come in. They’ve have come up with a solution to turn this industry into a more sustainable model. By using a cheap yet specialized ionic liquid (i.e. a type of salt that is liquid at room temperature) they can turn neglected waste wood (and even contaminated waste wood) that would otherwise go to the landfill or be incinerated into a raw material that can be used to make bioplastics and biofuel. But how much waste wood is there? Oh, just around 100 million tons in the US and EU alone! And when you consider that companies or factories usually pay a hefty fee ($50-$100 per ton) to have all this wood removed it simply makes good economic sense.
Chrysalix Technologies’ energy efficient process can reduce carbon emissions over the entire supply chain from sourcing the biomass to finally manufacturing say, a biodegradable cup, by at least 70% and, depending on how the byproducts are used, they may even be able to achieve net carbon neutrality.
Of course a game changing startup takes time and money. The aim for Chrysalix Technologies is to have their own pilot plant up and running in 2 years and, with a bit of industry and financial backing, a number of sites across Europe (and hopefully the world) all operating under their innovative process and design within 5 years.
In the long term, while Chrysalix Technologies aims to become a big player in the biomass industry, Florence maintains that their mission driven vision will remain at the core of their business “to us it’s very important that we’re generating value to the wider society and not just shareholders…there is definitely a space for us to grow without compromising our values”.