Bi-rex: from waste to resource
During the Re-think Circular Economy Forum event organised in Taranto on the 28th and 29th of September 2021, Tondo decided to also organise and host an Innovation Call focused on three macro topics: environmental and waste management, circular ports and energy transition and sustainable mobility.
The Innovation Call was aimed at start-ups in the country that promote and propose innovative and circular solutions in the three areas mentioned above. Several companies were selected, but only one was the overall winner: Bi-rex, working in the field of environmental and waste management.
What is Bi-rex?
Bi-rex is a startup founded by Greta Colombo Dugoni, CEO and R&D Manager, and Monica Ferro, Project Manager, with the aim of creating a new economic model that is able to recover high-value products from biomasses derived from agro-industrial processing.
In particular, their research and product focus on the creation and production of cellulose from alternative sources, because just as cellulose is a natural biopolymer, so it is, for instance, chitin, which is one of the main components of the exoskeleton of shrimps and other animals. Therefore, the idea is that it is not only plants, around 200 million tonnes of which are produced annually worldwide, that provide the cellulose, but waste too. However, in many cases waste is considered worthless and forgettable in composting plants or, worse, in landfills.
Bi-rex mostly focuses on chitin from shrimps and crabs, since around 6-8 million tonnes of crustaceans are annually bred worldwide and from which value can still be recovered. Through their tests, they recognised the value of biomass waste from the agri-food sector, which can have many disadvantages if kept in a linear economic system: the cellulose resource in them is wasted, the industries in the sector have to pay to dispose them and, they pollute if not treated with the right methods.
The idea came from an academic study they were carrying out, during which they realised that solvents were able to purify cellulose. Therefore, they started doing a series of tests on different kinds of organic waste biomasses, such as rice, husk, beer and thresher. In the beginning, they chose those products because their waste can be easily found in large quantities. After that, they moved on to waste from thistle processing, citrus pressing and now shrimps.
Bi-rex is an acronym that brings together the concepts related to the project, as explained by the researchers: B stands for biomass, I stands for innovation, R for recycling and, finally, Ex stands for extraction, which is the process they use to extract cellulose from organic waste.
Why developing this idea?
Globally, the consumption of plastic keeps growing, with around 310 million tonnes produced in 2020, compared to 15 million tonnes in 1964, and it continues to be mishandled at the end of its life cycle or dispersed into the environment with over 150 million tonnes already floating in the ocean. These numbers cannot reassure. At the moment, a worsening of this consumption is expected due also to the increasing population on our planet. However, it is innovation such as those studied and proposed by Bi-rex that can make the difference for a cleaner, more circular and responsible use of resources in the future.
The Bi-rex project was born at the Politecnico di Milano, where Greta Colombo Dugoni and Monica Ferro are researchers, and it has presented about four patents and obtained numerous grants. The startup was awarded by Eni’s Joule school in the 2020 edition of StartCup Lombardia, and at the beginning of January this year it began a customised incubation process by Polihub, as well as obtaining pre-seed funding from Poli360. Finally, last October, this all-female green enterprise was awarded a special mention at the Eni Award with the “Eni joule for Entrepreunership”.
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