Spain Bets on Biorefineries to Find New Revenue for Small Producers

Olive oil producers and researchers are working to bring biorefineries to rural producers in Andalusia. The goal is to supplement revenues while making mills more sustainable.
Jun. 24, 2020
Daniel Dawson

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The per­sis­tently low olive oil prices that have plagued Spanish pro­duc­ers for more than a year now are forc­ing some to look for addi­tional value else­where in the pro­duc­tion process.

Acesur, one of the word’s largest olive oil pro­duc­ers, has teamed up with sev­eral other agri­cul­tural firms and researchers on a new project with the aim of cre­at­ing value from the waste prod­ucts that result from olive oil extrac­tion.

Small-scale biore­finer­ies in rural areas are a key instru­ment of the new bioe­con­omy pro­moted by the E.U. to opti­mize bio­mass resources- Fátima Vargas, biotech­nol­ogy researcher, Ainia

Under the aus­pices of the Alpeocel project, the col­lab­o­ra­tors plan to develop new biore­fin­ery processes in order to turn alpe­orujo – a mix­ture of water, olive skins, stones and pulp – into other com­pounds that may be used in the man­u­fac­turer of fer­til­iz­ers, cos­met­ics and bio­mass.

While these processes already exist on larger scales in Spain as well as else­where in the European Union, the hope for this ini­tia­tive is to cre­ate small-scale biore­finer­ies in rural areas.

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It is a pio­neer­ing ini­tia­tive in Spain in which we aim to apply the biore­fin­ery model to exist­ing facil­i­ties, such as the olive groves, expand­ing its scope and thus allow­ing it to improve [the groves’] tech­ni­cal-eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal via­bil­ity,” said Fátima Vargas from the Ainia biotech­nol­ogy depart­ment, which is pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal assis­tance to the project.

Furthermore, we can find syn­er­gies between the new biore­fin­ery processes and the avail­able pro­cess­ing tech­nolo­gies to obtain a wide spec­trum of new bio­prod­ucts and bioen­ergy,” she added.


According to Ainia, a non-profit focused on agribusi­ness, roughly 80 per­cent of the olives that are processed in mills are turned into alpe­orujo. It is esti­mated that for every pound of olives that are trans­formed into oil, between a pound (0.45 kilo­grams) and 2.5 pounds (1.13 kilo­grams) of alpe­orujo is cre­ated.

Due to the chem­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of these byprod­ucts and large quan­ti­ties that are yielded, pro­duc­ers usu­ally need to pay to have the residue removed, adding another cost to their bud­get.

Acesur and its col­lab­o­ra­tors are bet­ting that the incor­po­ra­tion of biore­finer­ies to these small-scale pro­duc­tion sites will turn that cost into an addi­tional stream of rev­enue.

However, it remains unclear exactly how many of these biore­finer­ies will be built, which pro­duc­ers will be able to ben­e­fit and how much added value they biore­finer­ies will bring to the pro­duc­tion process.

Representatives from both Acesur and Ainia said only that the project is at a very early stage and they would know more as it pro­gressed.

The €1.66 mil­lion ($1.87 mil­lion) project is being co-funded by Spain’s Center for the Development of Industrial Technology and the E.U.‘s fund for regional devel­op­ment.

Small-scale biore­finer­ies in rural areas are a key instru­ment of the new bioe­con­omy pro­moted by the E.U. to opti­mize bio­mass resources,” Vargas said.

The hope is to have these biore­finer­ies fully oper­a­tional in time for the 2021 har­vest, with the first ones being set up in the provinces of Córdoba and Jaén, the lead­ing olive oil pro­duc­ing provinces in the world.



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