Monday, June 14, 2010

Biomass: From Niche Chemicals Up to Bulk Fuels

The evolution of profitable biomass enterprises will occur by logical steps -- as the technology for biomass production and refinement is improved. Biomass must be broken down into usable forms. The quick route is thermochemical. Pyrolysis, gasification, catalytic synthesis. But there are several ways to skin the biomass cat. We have just gotten started.
Researchers at Fudan University (Shanghai, China) have converted the marine macroalgae Enteromorpha prolifera, one of the main algae genera for “green tide”—massive algal blooms caused by eutrophication of marine water bodies—to bio-oil by hydrothermal liquefaction in a batch reactor at temperatures of 220-320 °C....

...Their study, published online 11 June in the ACS journal Energy & Fuels, investigate the effects of the temperature, reaction time, and alkali catalyst (Na2CO3) on product yields were studied. The characters of liquid and solid products were analyzed using multiple analysis methods, such as elemental analysis, Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and 1H nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

The hydrothermal liquefaction was performed using system consisting of a 250 mL GSH-0.25 zirconium cylindrical autoclave, an electrically heated furnace, a magnetic stirrer, a pressure holding circuit, and a controller. In a typical run, 20 g of E. prolifera powder, 150 mL of distilled water, and the desired quantities of Na2CO3 catalyst (0 or 5 wt %) were charged in the autoclave. Residue air was removed by purging with N2 for 5 min. The autoclave was pressurized to 2.0 MPa with N2. The operating temperature and reaction time are two important parameters for the hydrothermal liquefaction process. _GCC

The approach illustrated above comes from George Johns at City College of New York. It involves using gelinators to create gel phase biorefineries for converting biomass to a wide array of niche chemicals -- eventually reaching efficiences that allow for profitable bulk commodity chemicals production.

It all comes down to converting ligno-cellulosic biomass to useful chemical feedstocks for further synthesis. While thermochemical conversion is quickest, it is not necessarily the most efficient. Microbial breakdown and conversion of biomass to chemicals is likely to be the intermediate and near-longterm winner for biomass to chemicals production.
A research team at the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) has developed a powerful new tool that promises to unlock the secrets of biomass degradation, a critical step in the development of cost-effective cellulosic biofuels.

The details of this method were published online on June 11 in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
Fulfilling the promise of cellulosic biofuels requires developing efficient strategies to extract sugar molecules in biomass polymers like cellulose. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi are capable of converting biomass to simple sugars, but historically have been difficult to study using genetic approaches.
A breakthrough by a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers at the GLBRC has made it possible to perform genetic analysis on Cellvibrio japonicus, a promising bacterium that has long been known to convert biomass to sugars. Using a technique called vector integration, the team has developed a method to generate a mutation in any gene within the organism. _SD

Genetic engineering is the key for creating large scale microbial colony bioreactors.

For the longer term, the "pseudo-cellular" gel phase approach to mass production -- using nano and micro-scale synthesis in easily multiplied modules -- is likely to allow for a lower maintenance approach to low energy catalytic synthesis of the widest range of chemicals from bio-feedstocks.

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