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Bio “Waste” Becomes Fragrances, Flavorings,
What biorefineries consider waste to be burned now
turned into high-value molecules
Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living
organisms. In the context of biomass for energy this is often used to mean
plant based material. Image credit: Spero Energy
West Lafayette, Indiana: A new catalytic process
is able to convert what was once considered biomass waste into lucrative
chemical products that can be used in fragrances, flavorings or to create
high-octane fuel for racecars and jets.
A team of researchers from Purdue University’s
Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, or C3Bio, has
developed a process that uses a chemical catalyst and heat to spur reactions
that convert lignin into valuable chemical commodities. Lignin is a tough
and highly complex molecule that gives the plant cell wall its rigid
Abu-Omar, the R.B. Wetherill Professor of Chemistry and Professor of
Chemical Engineering and associate director of C3Bio, led the team.
“We are able to take lignin - which most
biorefineries consider waste to be burned for its heat - and turn it into
high-value molecules that have applications in fragrance, flavoring and
high-octane jet fuels,” Abu-Omar said. “We can do this while simultaneously
producing from the biomass lignin-free cellulose, which is the basis of
ethanol and other liquid fuels. We do all of this in a one-step process.”
Plant biomass is made up primarily of lignin and
cellulose, a long chain of sugar molecules that is the bulk material of
plant cell walls. In standard production of ethanol, enzymes are used to
break down the biomass and release sugars. Yeast then feast on the sugars
and create ethanol.
Lignin acts as a physical barrier that makes it difficult to extract sugars
from biomass and acts as a chemical barrier that poisons the enzymes. Many
refining processes include harsh pretreatment steps to break down and remove
lignin, he said.
“Lignin is far more than just a tough barrier preventing us from getting the
good stuff out of biomass, and we need to look at the problem differently,”
Abu-Omar said. “While lignin accounts for approximately 25 percent of the
biomass by weight, it accounts for approximately 37 percent of the carbon in
biomass. As a carbon source lignin can be very valuable, we just need a way
to tap into it without jeopardizing the sugars we need for biofuels.”
The Purdue team developed a process that starts
with untreated chipped and milled wood from sustainable poplar, eucalyptus
or birch trees. A catalyst is added to initiate and speed the desired
chemical reactions, but is not consumed by them and can be recycled and used
again. A solvent is added to the mix to help dissolve and loosen up the
materials. The mixture is contained in a pressurized reactor and heated for
several hours. The process breaks up the lignin molecules and results in
lignin-free cellulose and a liquid stream that contains two additional
chemical products, Abu-Omar said.
The liquid stream contains the solvent, which is
easily evaporated and recycled, and two phenols, a class of aromatic
hydrocarbon compounds used in perfumes and flavorings. A commonly used
artificial vanilla flavoring is currently produced using a phenol that comes
from petroleum, he said.
The team also developed an additional process that
uses another catalyst to convert the two phenol products into high-octane
hydrocarbon fuel suitable for use as drop-in gasoline. The fuel produced has
a research octane rating greater than100, whereas the average gas we put
into our cars has an octane rating in the eighties, he said.
The processes and resulting products are detailed
in a paper published online in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Green
Chemistry. The U.S. Department of Energy funded the research.
In addition to Abu-Omar, co-authors include
Trenton Parsell, a visiting scholar in the Department of Chemistry; chemical
engineering graduate students Sara Yohe, John Degenstein, Emre Gencer, and
Harshavardhan Choudhari; chemistry graduate students Ian Klein, Tiffany
Jarrell, and Matt Hurt; agricultural and biological engineering graduate
student Barron Hewetson; Jeong Im Kim, associate research scientist in
biochemistry; Basudeb Saha, associate research scientist in chemistry;
Richard Meilan, professor of forestry and natural reserouces; Nathan Mosier,
associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering; Fabio
Ribeiro, the R. Norris and Eleanor Shreve Professor of Chemical Engineering;
W. Nicholas Delgass, the Maxine S. Nichols Emeritus Professor of Chemical
Engineering; Clint Chapple, the head and distinguished professor of
biochemistry; Hilkka I. Kenttamaa, professor of chemistry; and Rakesh
Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical
catalyst is expensive, and the team plans to further study efficient ways to
recycle it, along with ways to scale up the entire process, Abu-Omar said.
“A biorefinery that focuses not only on ethanol,
but on other products that can be made from the biomass is more efficient
and profitable overall,” he said. “It is possible that lignin could turn out
to be more valuable than cellulose and could subsidize the production of
ethanol from sustainable biomass.”
The U.S. Department of Energy-funded C3Bio center
is an Energy Frontier Research Center. It is part of Discovery Park’s Energy
Center and the Bindley Bioscience Center at Purdue.
Purdue Research Foundation has filed patent
applications and launched a startup company, Spero Energy, which was founded
Writer: Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765.494.2081, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Source: Mahdi Abu-Omar, 765.494.5302,
the front page in print...)
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