The new eco-innovative approach to biochemicals: Nova Biochem' story

Published on 2024-04-12

Startup Story

Listen the full podcast or read the article below!

Explore how Nova Biochem transforms agri-waste into valuable chemicals, reducing CO2 emissions and advancing sustainable industry practices


Transforming Waste into Wealth: Nova Biochem's Innovative Approach to Sustainable Chemical Production

I'm Alexander Novitskiy, Co-Founder and CEO at Nova Biochem, a startup from the UK that's turning pulp and agricultural waste into invaluable biochemicals. Our journey began with a spark of innovation during my PhD studies at the University of Nottingham, where collaboration and research led us to explore the potential of repurposing waste from the pulping industry into something far more valuable. In 2023, alongside my colleague Eduardo and a dedicated team of chemical engineers and chemists, we launched Nova Biochem to tackle one of the industry's most significant environmental challenges.

Our world faces a critical issue with the disposal of lignin, a byproduct of the pulping process. Each year, this results in the burning of nearly 100 million tons of lignin, contributing to a quarter of a gigaton of CO2 emissions. At Nova Biochem, our goal is to halt this cycle by converting lignin into high-value biochemicals, offering a sustainable alternative that benefits both our planet and the economy.

The innovation behind Nova Biochem lies in our unique process, designed to be scalable and integrate seamlessly with existing waste streams from pulp mills. We've set strict criteria for our technology, including the avoidance of organic solvents and expensive catalysts, ensuring our solution is not only environmentally friendly but also economically viable. By exploiting the reactive nature of water under high temperature and pressure, we can efficiently break down lignin into monomers. These monomers are the building blocks for bio-based products such as polymers, adhesives, and epoxy resins, marking a significant step forward in the quest for sustainable chemical production.


Unveiling the Future of Biochemicals: From Lignin to Valuable Chemical Compounds

My team and I are on a transformative path, turning the complex polymer lignin, found in pulp and agricultural waste, into a myriad of valuable chemical compounds. Lignin, with its intricate structure and phenolic rings—a carbon atom hexagon—serves as the backbone for a vast range of applications in the chemical industry. Among these, vanillin, the essence of vanilla, stands as a familiar example, showcasing the versatility and potential of our outputs. Our process meticulously breaks down lignin, aiming to preserve the phenolic ring and introduce "complications" or unique chemical attributes that enhance its utility for further reactions. This innovative approach results in a diverse blend of chemicals, varying with the source material, whether from softwoods like pine or hardwoods like birch or oak. Each output presents a unique chemical signature, including well-known compounds like vanillin and more specialized ones like vanillic acid, finding their place in industries from food flavoring to pharmaceuticals.

The Environmental Edge of Water-Based Processing

Central to Nova Biochem's ethos is the environmental benefit of our water-based process. Traditional chemical methods often rely on solvents that can be hazardous and environmentally damaging. In contrast, our process is designed to be seamlessly integrated with existing industry operations, capitalizing on the waste already produced by pulp mills. This waste, comprising 10-15% lignin by mass in water, is directly utilized in our process without the need for separation or purification steps typically required by other methods.

This efficiency is not just about ease of integration but also about minimizing environmental impact. By using the waste as it comes, we significantly reduce the need for additional chemicals or catalysts, focusing instead on smart energy delivery and reaction conditions to convert lignin into valuable products. The elegance of this approach lies in its simplicity and its ability to take full advantage of the waste's inherent properties, promoting sustainability and innovation in the chemical industry.

Integration with the Pulp Industry

Our approach to innovation extends beyond the lab and into strategic collaborations with leading industry players. Our partnership model is a testament to our commitment to not only advancing technology but also fostering symbiotic relationships with existing pulp mills. From the outset, our focus has been on seamless integration and mutual benefit, guided by insights and feedback from industry giants such as UPM, Stora Enzo, and most recently, Safi from Forest Valley.

Understanding the intricacies of pulp mill operations has been crucial in shaping our technology. The typical process involves condensing waste and utilizing it in a recovery boiler, which is pivotal for the mill's energy production and chemical recovery essential for paper manufacturing. Our challenge was to introduce our bioconversion process without disrupting these critical operations. To achieve this, we've adopted a model that begins with a small-scale integration, targeting the diversion of about 10% of the mill's waste to our process. This strategic approach ensures that our system complements the existing mill operations, enhancing overall efficiency without imposing on the mill's core processes. The vision is to co-locate our biorefineries with the pulp mills, sharing ownership and operational responsibilities. This collaborative framework not only mitigates risks but also ensures that the benefits, particularly from the valuable biochemical products derived from waste, are shared.


Charting the Future of Nova Biochem Amidst Innovation and Startup Challenges

We navigate a complex landscape of innovation challenges and startup dilemmas, from technical hurdles that affirm our path of innovation and create a competitive barrier, to the classic startup funding conundrum where securing initial investments requires validated results that, paradoxically, need funding to achieve. This intricate dance of securing resources, team, and funding formed our initial trials. Looking ahead, we're bolstered by an Innovate UK grant, aiming to validate our minimum viable product at a significant scale and process pace, leading to our first patent and a seed funding round to enhance our processing capacity. This trajectory sets us on a fast track towards establishing our first factory by 2026, balancing the urgency of innovation with the meticulous pace of sustainable, impactful growth, underscoring our commitment to transforming the chemical industry and contributing positively to the environment.




About the author

Alexander Novitskiy