Breakthroughs in biorefining: a panel preview for Northeast BIOMASS Conference & Expo

By Ron Kotrba | July 13, 2010
Posted July 14, 2010

The Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo Aug. 4-6 at Westin Copely Place in Boston will feature a biorefining panel titled, "Cutting-Edge Conversion Approaches: Breakthroughs in Biorefining."

Stephen Fitzpatrick with Waltham, Mass.-based Biofine Technology LLC will present on the Biofine Process for thermocatalytic biomass refining. The process employs high temperatures and dilute-acid catalysis for rapid hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass to produce levulinic and formic acids, and biochar. Fitzpatrick said the process is carried out in a novel continuous reactor system that enhances yield for commercial applications.

"The process is flexible enough to utilize a wide range of lignocelluloses such as forest residues, waste paper or straw," he said. "Derivative green products of interest include heating and transportation fuels, monomers and general chemicals." Fitzpatrick said that a semi-commercial-scale plant is now operational in Gorham, Maine, adding that, "the process could allow biomass to displace crude oil as the primary source of fuels and chemicals. … It was recently assessed to have a greenhouse gas life-cycle assessment that is more than 90 percent better than gasoline or diesel fuel and 40 percent better that soy-based biodiesel by independent assessors using the DOE-developed GREET methodology."

He said of particular commercial interest is the production of ethyl levulinate, a versatile fuel product that can be blended with heating oil, diesel or gasoline. "It is manufactured by combination of levulinic acid with ethanol," he said. "The development of a renewable heating oil blending component that can be economically produced and used in the Northeast should be of great commercial interest." He projected that the process can allow profitable production of heating oil blendstock from wood or agricultural residues for less than two dollars per gallon at large scale. "Ethyl levulinate can be blended directly or co-blended with biodiesel," Fitzpatrick said.

Waste plastic streams in MSW can be a real concern, much of which gets landfilled where it serves no good to anyone. Polyflow Corp. chairman Joseph Hensel said his company has developed a process to convert mixed and dirty polymer solid wastes into chemical intermediates and fuels.

"A unique value that this technology offers is the utilization of the mixed polymer stream without sorting by polymer type," Hensel said. "Today only 7 percent of all polymers are recycled because of the difficulty and expense of sorting, leaving 93 percent that are currently being landfilled. Unlike classic plastics recycling processes, this technology uses mixed, unseparable polymer waste. There is no requirement for sorting any of the polymers by color, type or grade. The process is robust, minimizing the need to manage the composition of the feedstock to maintain the process specifications and maximize output volume and quality." He said mixed polymer feedstock means hard packaging, flexible packaging, multilayer films, thermosets as well as thermoplastics, tires, carpet, agricultural film, e-waste plastic, expanded polystyrene and other polymers.

He said the process can make chemical intermediates that can be sold to the petrochemical industry, in addition to gas and diesel fuel, through a simple cracking process similar to how crude oil is refined. "These polymers were already refined once, so they're pretty easy to handle," Hensel told Biodiesel Magazine. "Thirty-seven percent of the energy used in this country comes from crude oil. Ten percent of that is used to manufacture plastics and rubber. We can take that 10 percent and bring it back into the energy stream. That can have a major impact."

Also presenting at the NEBCE in Boston is Bernhard Quirbach, who will discuss hydrothermal carbonization and pyrolysis, two systems to get a high-energy output without a very high-energy input, he said. Quirbach's presentation will show the options of how to use HTC and pyrolysis for a "new biofuel and bioenergy generation," he said.

Kevin Gray, chief technology officer for Qteros, is scheduled to speak about the biomass-to-ethanol process based around the trademarked Q microbe, Clostridium phytofermentans, which he said has the natural ability to hydrolyze all types of polysaccharides in biomass and ferment those sugars into ethanol. "The genome sequence of the Q microbe shows the presence of over 105 different glycosyl hydrolases, and microarray analysis indicated that the glycosyl hydrolases were induced when the organism was grown in the presence of complex carbohydrates and down-regulated when grown on simple sugars," he said. "Enzyme titration data has shown that the Q microbe achieves maximal productivity with one-fourth to one-fifth the amount of exogenous enzyme required by Saccharomyces cerevisae."

Gray said a genetic system has been developed such that specific genes can be deleted or over-expressed in order to improve performance, adding, "this presentation will describe recent progress in strain and process development to meet commercial metrics."

Maxwell Morton with Grayhead Associates is scheduled to moderate this panel.

To register for the Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo, visit
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