Expert interview with Ilja Gasan Osojnik Črnivec from National Institute of Chemistry, Slovenia

Date: 29.03.2024

Ilja Gasan Osojnik Črnivec graduated at the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana (2006) and defended his Ph.D. thesis at the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, UL and National institute of Chemistry (2013). Part of his studies was performed at the ESA Purpan (FR). As a visiting academic he has attended the University of Cambridge (UK), Middle East Technical University (TR), and Gazi University (TR). His research career has been established in conventional and advanced methods for preparation, synthesis, characterization, and performance testing of a wide array of inorganic and organic materials, as well as design and management of biotechnological processes. At the Chair of Biochemistry and Food Chemistry (2018 – ,BF UL) his research focuses on encapsulation carriers, encapsulation of bioactive compounds and microorganisms as well as valorisation of waste and by-products from the agri-food. He is also setting up the Laboratory for Demonstration of H2 and CO2 Technologies at the Centre DUBT for Carbon-Free Technologies in Slovenia (2022 – , NIC). He is heading several research projects and has published more than 40 peer review articles, two patent applications and one patent.


Figure: Dr. Ilja Gasan Osojnik Črnivec



  1. What is your background? (education and work experience)

I studied animal science for my university studies and chemical engineering at the postgraduate level. My work experience is quite diverse, basically starting off in biotests and biogas research at the Biotechnical Faculty (2006-2009), then working in biogas and dry methane reforming to syngas and similar coupled biotechnological and heterogeneous catalysis processes, and also some biohydrogen production at the National Institute of Chemistry (2009-2015), and then venturing to various bioengineering and biodiversity topics at Agricultural Institute of Slovenija and Biotechnical Faculty (2016-2018). From 2018 I worked in waste and plant residues valorisation, as well as extract, bioactive compounds, and microbial protection. Through all these years, I have also been teaching. Now (since 2022) I am bridging all these experiences within the new Laboratory for the demonstration of H2 and CO2 technologies at the Center DUBT at the National Institute of Chemistry, that will be dealing with material and process design for decarbonisation, energy intensive energies, renewable carriers, gas transformation, liquid carriers, as well as waste valorisation and bioprocesses.


  1. Describe the institute you work for. How many employees the institute has?

The National institute of Chemistry has roughly 400 employees, with two fifths of which have and additional third which are obtaining a doctorate of science degree. The institute is highly recognised in materials research, life sciences, biotechnology, chemical engineering, structural and theoretical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and environmental protection. High end research as well as cooperation with the industry are important parts of the research work at the institute. The new Center for Development, Demonstration and Training for Carbon-Free Technologies aims to establish a center with cutting-edge research infrastructure in the field of battery and hydrogen technology development at the site of the new research unit of the National Institute of Chemistry in Zasavje.


  1. How does your work relate to the circular economy?

Our group has been involved in various research projects oriented to circular policy development. On the national level, Bridging gaps in Bioeconomy (Bridge2Bio) project led by prof Luka Juvančič was the first systematic circular economy project where we mapped possible biomass sources from primary and wood production, possible technologies, as business models and proposed measures. The project is continued in the project CircAgro, evaluating circular solutions by identifying prospective underutilised biomass streams at model farms, developing circular use prototypes and hopefully providing farmers and legislators with a good toolbox for effective agricultural and rural development. At the other side of circularity, we developed and coordinated the first national-wide project targeted to food waste reduction and prevention (Food Is Not Waste), where we identified reasons for food waste generation in different parts of the food supply chain, looked at different management models, drafted measures for food waste prevention and reduction, and generated sectoral recommendations. The generated knowledge lives on in many new projects, dealing with e.g. healthy school meals (prof. Mojca Korošec), using ex food for feed (prof. Janez Salobir and prof. Alenka Levart) and many others.

In more applied research, I have always been part of research where we focused on circular aspects. Starting in biogas production at the time it was considered as a pinnacle of waste utilisation. Later on, it was discovered, that not all biomass is created equal, and should not be treated equal. E.g. we have shown in many cases that plant-based biomass residues (e.g. rose hips in BITE 2014, 171, 375-383, onion skins in Waste Management 2021, 126, 476-486, pomegranate peals in Foods 2022, 11(18), 2740, etc.) can contain valuable bioactive compounds, and that the remaining fibrous fraction can be efficiently used, for example in papermaking. The production of energy from residues is now considered efficient only for very inhomogeneous, low value biomass. Even for the extraction part and recovered lignocellulose (or other insoluble parts of the residues) we are finding new ways of use ad study every day.


  1. What potential do you see in the usage of by-products for a circular approach?

Using by-products and inedible food parts holds great potential in primary production and the food industry. This is something that has been well recognised in individual interviews by operators when discussing food waste generation. There are cases where these streams can be used directly in the production process or on site, where they arise, therefor entering back in the food production process (e.g. as additional ingredients or as special components, like new aromas, colours, shelf-life prolonging additives, dietary fibres etc.). Other times, these streams can provide feedstocks for other companies, to produce even higher added-value products. If the residue stream is produced regularly in sufficient quantities, is relatively homogeneous, clean and can be easily stabilised or promptly used-up fresh, it is suitable to develop technologies and business models for further utilisation.


  1. Why is using by-products as a resource and/or finding new applications for by-products important to you? Where do you see the greatest potential? Where are your challenges?

Using by-products makes sense for me from a perspective of efficient use of resources, it makes sense to me to use what you have available, to decrease amounts of external feedstocks or develop new products. By being diligent with your resources, we have seen many cases where the economic efficiency and/or value added are improved, environmental impact is decreased, and waste treatment costs are strongly reduced.

In research that is performed at the Biotechnical Faculty there is great care taken that only compounds with GRAS status or permitted food additives/food contact materials are being used, and antimicrobial tests with different model fungi and bacteria are performed. At the National Institute of Biology cytotoxicity and genotoxicity of materials can be determined. Papermaking studies at the Pulp and Paper Institute can be checked through their accredited methods for food packaging requirements. At the National Institute of Chemistry, we can sometimes use highly selected solvents to more precisely determine the extracted fractions that we get and describe more their functions. If something is very promising, we then work retrogradely to find suitable food safe solvents or procedures.



  1. How important is collaboration for using biorefineries as a way towards circular economy?


Biorafination in itself produces a wide range of different products and product intermediates. Due to product diversity, it is highly likely different subsequent technologies are required for further processing, different levels of polishing are required, as well as the end products will differ as to where in the market they will be positioned (different customers). Due to this, clusters and other types of collaboration are required for efficient feedstock provision, biorefinery operation, fraction processing and end product marketing. Likewise, the involvement of research organisations from different fields and various levels of R&D capacity could also be required in the development phase, which is also requiring a collaborative RRI effort.