More and more attention is focusing on developing processes to make biofuels and biochemicals from non-food crops and cellulosic wastes. A leader in such efforts is Biofine Renewables, Waltham, Mass.
Since 2007, the company has operated a demonstration plant in Gorham, Maine, that's successfully converted cellulosic biomass feedstock into levulinic acid intermediates used in a variety of chemicals, plastics and fuels.
"Our product is data and our goal is to prove to our investors and potential clients that second-generation biofuels are worthwhile and profitable," says Steve Fitzpatrick, Biofine Renewables' president.
Many of these clients have immediate access to a low-cost feedstock that's high in cellulose, such as waste wood pulp. Today, though, such a material generally poses burdens not benefits.
The company's technology promises to change that. "Instead of having to pay to haul the waste away or just burning it in a boiler, they can convert it into chemical intermediates that have high values," Fitzpatrick notes. "The process also generates a byproduct called lignin that can be burned to provide energy to the plant or nearby consumers." (Academic and commercial research underway may lead to use of lignin as a biochemicals feedstock or as non-biodegradable soil amender.)
The Biofine Renewables process involves high-temperature dilute-acid-catalyzed hydrolytic breakdown of cellulose to form levulinic acid. The company has developed a novel reactor configuration that promotes production of levulinic acid while reducing char formation.
The overall process leading to commercial-grade levulinic acid consists of five steps carried out continuously:
1. Feedstock preparation and mixing. Raw feedstock is ground to a particle size of around 0.5 cm and mixed with recycle dilute mineral acid.
2. Hydrolysis. The main conversion reactions occur and ligneous char is separated from the reaction mixture.
3. Product concentration. Water concentration is adjusted and formic acid and furfural, if present, are recovered.