Agricultural products and woods have been used as renewable sources of biofuel and various chemicals, which are essential for producing biodegradable plastics, medicine, and other petroleum-based products.
To avoid competition with the food supply, and thus preventing food shortage, conversion technologies are applied only to plant-based wastes, also lignocellulosic biomass, which include wood chips, corn cobs, etc.
Converting lignocellulosic biomass into fuel and chemicals usually involves two separate steps, which utilize harmful chemicals and expensive enzymes. Researchers from University of Delaware (UD) have invented a novel one-step conversion process that enables lesser reaction time, costs, water consumption, and energy consumption.
Lignocellulosic biomass, as the name suggests, is composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. The lignin holds the cellulosic fibers together. The two steps in converting the biomass into usable products are first, disintegrating the lignin from the cellulose, and second, hydrolyzing the cellulosic fibers into furans.
The novel one-step process of UD allows the two steps to occur simultaneously in one reaction container using a concentrated salt solution with a few amount of mineral acid. The salt solution swells the lignocellulosic biomass to separate the lignin from cellulosic fibers, while the mineral acid converts the cellulose into furans.
The properties of the salt solution used to allow high yield (95%) of cellulose, and thus allow less water consumption and faster reaction time. The incorporation of two steps into one reaction vessel and the lower process temperature at 85 degrees Celsius allow more time and energy saved. The novel process is now being escalated to mass production by RAPID, a Manufacturing USA Institute.
“Our process enables – for the first time – the economical production of feed streams that could profoundly improve the economics of cellulosic bioproducts manufactured downstream, not to mention the environmental benefits of replacing petroleum,” says Basudeb Saha, the associate director for research at UD’s Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation.