Renewable Resources Drive Pilot Developments

Efforts target biofuels as well as advanced coatings and materials.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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New pilot plants and dedicated technology centers promise to speed progress in bringing to market fuels and other products based on renewable resources and novel coatings and materials.

For instance, Clariant, Muttenz, Switzerland, has inaugurated Germany's biggest pilot plant for the production of ethanol from cellulosic agricultural waste.

Located in Straubing, Bavaria, and supported by the Bavarian government and the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, each to the tune of €5 million ($6.27 million), the project will produce up to 1,000 metric tons of ethanol from around 4,500 mt of wheat straw. The process is based on Sunliquid technology developed by Süd-Chemie, which has been part of Clariant since July 1st. The project represents an overall investment of €28 million ($35.3 million), with just under €12 million ($15.1million) targeted for ongoing research into the technology (Figure 1).

Süd-Chemie began using Sunliquid for small-scale production of second-generation biofuel in 2009. The process involves breaking down cellulose-containing plant parts, for example, wheat or corn straw, into sugars through enzymatic conversion. The Sunliquid process also converts hemicellulose into ethanol, thereby increasing yield by about 50%. Ethanol from the process can cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95% compared with fossil fuels such as petroleum or natural gas, says the company.

"We have been developing the Sunliquid technology since 2006 and have been testing the method on a pilot scale since 2009. The results we obtain in Straubing will enable us to plan industrial production plants efficiently and economically, and ultimately to realize such plants in cooperation with partners," explains Andre Koltermann, head of Clariant's Biotech & Renewables Center.

Studies show that Germany potentially has around 22 million mt of straw that could be used for energy production without compromising essential soil regeneration. This would suffice to cover around 25% of the country's current gasoline requirements.

Meanwhile, the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), Des Plaines, Ill., is developing a biofuels process that relies on a novel variation on hydropyrolysis. Known as integrated hydropyrolysis and hydroconversion (IH2), it converts municipal waste, algae, corn stalks and similar materials into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Following successful laboratory-scale trials, GTI engineers now aim to have multiple pilot facilities operating by 2014, with each producing 3,500–17,000 gallons of fuel/day.

"We will be designing commercial-scale facilities that could produce as much as 300,000 gallons/day from the same kinds of feedstocks," reported GTI's Martin Linck in August at the annual meeting of American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C.

The process employs a catalyzed fluidized-bed hydropyrolysis step followed by an integrated hydroconversion step to convert biomass into high-quality hydrocarbon fuels that reportedly can directly replace conventional ones.

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