Food production in industrial symbiosis is an R&D opportunity addressing the food-energy-water nexus and therefore sustainable development. The low-hanging fruit of this opportunity are already being developed in ongoing projects. The urgency of climate action as well as other sustainable development goals merits an accelerated effort to develop and deploy far greater variety and capacity for symbiotic, industrial-scale food production.
Three points of departure collectively point to a potential opportunity to create sustainability and resilience with food production in industrial symbiosis:
The water-energy-food nexus conceptualizes the “inextricable linkages between these critical domains” and is “central to sustainable development1”.
Parker & Svantemark (2019) concludes “distributed symbiotic food production can contribute to resilience to the most threatening of the relevant risks identified and that, therefore, more in-depth investigations of how symbiotic systems can contribute to resilience are merited2”.
Parker & Kiessling (2016): “Arable land, artificial fertilizers, and freshwater resources are the base for our present food systems but are limited. At the same time, energy resources in the form of waste heat are available in ample quantities3”.
There are two main drivers making low-grade waste heat a lasting and abundant resource, the electrification of industry
and digitalisation. The electrification of industry is driven by the competitive need to increase efficiency, coupled with the social demand to reduce use of fossil fuels. Processes today driven by combustion, predominantly of fossil fuels, are being pushed towards the corresponding electrical processes. digitalisation is increasingly evident in communications, products, services and
businesses, resulting in the proliferation of mass data centres. These data centres require cooling. The resulting heat is generally low-grade.
Cooling temperatures for electronics and information technology will still vary. A case study is the European Spallation Source ESS, a neutron source currently under construction, powered by what will be the world’s most powerful linear accelerator. ESS has a goal to recycle all waste heat. As a research facility, ESS publishes its design reports and numerous papers and conference proceedings. The ESS Energy Design Report details three cooling temperatures, a high-temperature level at 70-90°C, a medium range at the conventional cooling system level of 40°C and an also conventional chilled water loop at 5-10°C. The chilled water requires chillers, which conventionally reject heat at around 25°. The ESS envisioned employing heat pumps that deliver more useful reject temperatures, which of course comes at a cost of some additional energy use for the heat pumps4. The ESS case illustrates why most waste heat from cooling electrical processes will be low-grade, perhaps 30-40°. Tap water requires heating to 55°, to avoid bacterial build-up. Room heating with floor heating only requires temperatures a few degrees higher than the desired room temperature. However, existing buildings tend to be designed for a heat delivery at conventional temperatures around 80°, thus requiring retrofitting a heating system to allow
use of low temperatures. The combined needs of duplicate heating
systems and retrofitting make low-grade district heating systems
impactable for existing residential areas.
Two ongoing R&D projects are illustrative of the opportunities
offered in connecting waste heat with food production. The
University of Linköping with the support from The Kamprad
Family Foundation for Entrepreneurship is running ‘Empowering
Regenerative Businesses for Increased Resource Productivity and
Sustainable Business Growth’. The project defines ‘regenerative
business’ as “entrepreneurial initiatives that adopt value creation
from residual resources as a core business”. The CORALIS5 project
seeks to demonstrate industrial symbiosis in Europe.
Three of the involved businesses are particularly relevant here.
Econova takes materials from industry that have traditionally been
considered waste and converts them into new raw materials, such
as fertilizer and soil improvement. Swedish Algae Factory farms
algae in symbiosis with salmon farming. WA3RM (this author’s
employer) creates regenerative business from industrial waste
The Econova example illustrates that there are more
connections between industrial waste streams and agriculture
than just waste heat. The on-land, closed-loop salmon farms
such as the ones that Swedish Algae Factory works with need
only 20°-heat for the fish to thrive. WA3RM’s current projects
include greenhouses supplied with 45°-55°-heat and fish farms
for tropical fish requiring 30°.
The projects also demonstrate that symbiotic food production
can deliver on many sustainable development goals besides
climate change, such as avoiding eutrophication, protecting
aquatic environment, job creation and economic growth.
All too often, government is a barrier rather than a support
for symbiotic food production, mainly due to the various schemes
supporting unsustainable, traditional food production. This
needs to be addressed to effectively combat climate change and
to develop sustainably. The R&D imperative is to push harder
towards commercial development on all promising initiatives in
cultivation, digestion, fermentation and so on that can input into
the food chain as food or fodder, or as fuel.