Triple play boosting value of renewable fuel could tip market in favor of biomass

May 19, 2017 by Silke Schmidt, University of Wisconsin-Madison
UW-Madison researchers and collaborators have developed a new 'green' technology for converting non-edible biomass into three high-value chemicals that are the basis for products traditionally made from petroleum. Credit: UW-Madison/Phil Biebl.

Technologies for converting non-edible biomass into chemicals and fuels traditionally made from petroleum exist aplenty. But when it comes to attracting commercial interest, these technologies compete financially with a petroleum-based production pipeline that has been perfected over the course of decades.

Winning that competition—or at least leveling the economic playing field—requires a leap forward. And by developing a new process for obtaining not one, but three high-value products from in one fell swoop, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers and their collaborators have now made that leap.

The researchers, led by James Dumesic, professor of chemical and biological engineering, published their results today (May 19, 2017) in the journal Science Advances.

Their new process tripled the fraction of biomass converted to high-value products to nearly 80 percent, also tripling the expected rate of return for an investment in the technology from roughly 10 percent (for one end product) to 30 percent.

"When a technology is new and risky, proving its economic feasibility and profit potential is critical for attracting investors," says David Martin Alonso, the study's first author and a researcher in chemical and at UW-Madison. "That's why we are very excited about its 30-percent internal rate of return."

Alonso is also director of research and development at Glucan Biorenewables, a UW-Madison spinoff company co-founded in 2012 by biomass conversion technology pioneer Dumesic.

The magic key for turning all three components—cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin—of lignocellulosic (non-edible) biomass into distinct high-value products is gamma valerolactone (GVL), a solvent that is derived from plant material and has several highly appealing properties.

"GVL is very effective at fractionating the biomass," Alonso says. "But it is also much more stable than other solvents, allowing us to reuse 99 percent of it in a closed-loop process. Until now, solvent loss had been a major bottleneck for making a renewable and carbon-efficient bio-refinery economically feasible."

It also explains why the is so "green." It starts with , has a very high solvent-recycling rate, needs miniscule amounts of acid, and uses all three fractions of biomass, minimizing waste. And the list of GVL's advantages goes on.

"GVL is also feedstock-agnostic," says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, Dumesic's doctoral student and a co-author on the paper. "We have demonstrated that it works on corn stover, switchgrass, hardwood trees like white birch and poplar, and softwood trees like loblolly pine. In fact, we have shown that it is an effective solvent for more than 30 types of biomass."

Several industry sectors may benefit from the new technology. Pulp and paper mills can turn two currently unused biomass fractions—hemicellulose and lignin—into commercial products, in addition to making paper from cellulose. With an additional step that increases its purity, they can also spin cellulose into fibers to produce textiles.

UW-Madison engineers (from left) David Martin Alonso, James Dumesic and Ali Hussain Motagamwala, examine a vial of furfural, one of a group of valuable products the researchers can now create as part of the biofuel refining process. Credit: UW-Madison/Steph Precourt.

Car manufacturers can convert plant-derived lignin into carbon foam and fibers, avoiding the sulfur smell that reduces the appeal of lignin derived from other sources. Scientists at the University of Tennessee, who are co-authors on the study, demonstrated that lignin can also be used to make battery anodes, traditionally made from more expensive graphite.

Last, but not least, the new technology converts hemicellulose into furfural, a chemical intermediate that is the basis for a variety of plastics, polymers and fuels. Too expensive to be produced by U.S. companies, furfural is imported from China.

"Depending on furfural from China, and on petroleum from OPEC countries, means that the market is volatile," Motagamwala says. "But since biomass is something every country has, bio-refineries may create a more stable market."

Dumesic says the next challenge is to de-risk the technology.

"Now that we have proven that GVL is very effective at separating the three biomass fractions without diminishing their value, we see a path forward to becoming cost-competitive with a petroleum refinery," he says. "Our next goal is to demonstrate that this new kind of bio-refinery can deliver a wide range of advanced biofuels and commodity chemicals as end products."

Larry Clarke, Glucan Biorenewables CEO, will use his company's platform to scale up the process and help realize its market potential.

"Since this simple, yet elegant and robust provides multiple value chain options, I believe it has the potential to transform the global biomass industry," he says.

Explore further: Ionic liquids from biomass waste could pretreat plants destined for biofuels

More information: D.M. Alonso el al., "Increasing the revenue from lignocellulosic biomass: Maximizing feedstock utilization," Science Advances (2017).

Related Stories

Recommended for you

World's first known manta ray nursery discovered

June 19, 2018

A graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and colleagues from NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have discovered the world's first known manta ray nursery.

Scientists see human immune response in the fruit fly

June 19, 2018

Washington State University researchers have seen how both humans and fruit flies deploy a protein that a plays a critical role in their immune responses to invading bacteria. The discovery gives scientists evolutionary insight ...

Road rules for gene transfer are written in DNA

June 19, 2018

A new discovery suggests that bacteria's ability to transfer genes, like those associated with antibiotic resistance, are governed by a previously unknown set of rules that are written in the DNA of the recipient.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (4) May 19, 2017
Cheap and plentiful petroleum for the foreseeable future. Have you hugged a fracker today? You should.

The Stone Age didn't end from lack of stone. The petroleum age isn't going to end for lack of petroleum.
5 / 5 (2) May 19, 2017
Occasionally something good comes from research into renewables. Glad to hear about this, good article.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) May 19, 2017
Good move. Don't drill. Grow.

Anytime someone makes something useful out of garbage, we all win.
2.3 / 5 (3) May 20, 2017
Well fossil fuel power generation has the advantage of actually working. Most of the various green energy schemes are tax payer funded scams for political money laundering.
May 20, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
May 20, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (1) May 22, 2017
Most of the various green energy schemes are tax payer funded scams for political money laundering.

Then what do you call the subsidies paid to fossil fuel producers? In 2015 these subsidies were an estimated $4 billion per year in the U.S. - https://www.nytim...tml?_r=0 - and an estimated $5.3 trillion globally - https://www.imf.o...=42940.0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.