Renewable Resources Drive Pilot Developments

Oct. 23, 2012
Efforts target biofuels as well as advanced coatings and materials.

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).

Figure 1. Clariant now is operating Germany's largest pilot plant for production of ethanol from cellulosic wastes. Source: Clariant.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.

GTI currently operates two smaller pilot plants to test and refine the process. Both use wood, corn stalks and leaves or algae. The first has a capacity of 1 lb of biomass per hour and can produce, depending upon feedstock type, 72–157 gallons of fuel per ton of dry ash-free feedstock. The second plant can handle more than 100 lb/h of biomass and is designed to operate continuously, like a commercial facility.

Based on assessments by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colo., IH2 technology has the capability to produce gasoline at a cost of less than $2.00 per gallon, Linck told the meeting.

Figure 2. Pilot unit in Ludwigshafen has reached a coating speed of 1,800 m/min. Source: BASF.EXTRUDER-BASED APPROACHFor its part, PureVision Technology (PVT), Fort Lupton, Colo., has broken ground for a new integrated pilot plant to further develop its three core technologies: continuous countercurrent reactor (CCR) technology; biomass fractionation chemistry; and rapid biomass hydrolysis chemistry.

For eight years, PureVision has been conducting continuous countercurrent processing of cellulosic biomass at elevated pressures and temperatures. The cellulosic biomass undergoes size reduction before being fed into a reaction chamber. Fractionation and rapid hydrolysis occur in what the company describes as a significantly modified extruder.

The CCR technology rapidly transforms biomass into low-cost fermentation sugars and other useful chemical components for manufacturing bio-based chemicals and products, claims PVT. Unlike rival biomass conversion processes, the technology doesn't rely on enzymes or concentrated acid.

Pilot-scale biomass-to-sugar testing was expected to begin last month (September). Initially, the new pilot plant will serve to conduct biomass-to-sugars technology scale-up programs on behalf of clients.

"The prospects for economical production of bio-based chemicals and fuels from biomass will depend on the availability of low-cost sugars," says Richard Wingerson, inventor of the PVT biorefining technology and the company's chief technology officer. "The PVT technical team has demonstrated that our technology can rapidly produce sugars from biomass at the small scale without using enzymes or harsh chemical conditions. With our new fully integrated continuous pilot plant, we expect to demonstrate and more accurately validate the process and economics of this unique technology."

Sustainability also has spurred the latest development by Yparex, Enshede, The Netherlands — a bio-based adhesive tie-layer resin suitable for blown or cast multilayer barrier films for packaging. Such tie layers bond dissimilar resins, e.g., polyamide and ethylene vinyl alcohol.

The new tie-layer resin, known as Renew, is derived from renewable resources and is fully recyclable, yet meets the same performance specifications as comparable non-renewable petroleum-based polymer, says the company. It enables packaging manufacturers to make their products more sustainable and less vulnerable to the cost of oil and natural gas.

"There's a lot of disagreement about how best to make the packaging industry more sustainable," notes Wouter Van den Berg, general manager, Yparex, which formerly was the adhesive tie-layer business of DSM Engineering Plastics. "Some argue for glass, since it's inert and recyclable. Others say paper is better, as it's made of materials that grow back. Still others say lightweight plastics are greenest because they save significant transportation costs and energy, while increasing safety (since they're unbreakable), and extending shelf life (reducing waste).

"I don't believe there will be one easy answer that solves the sustainability question or a single approach that addresses the needs of all the segments that are involved… and as a producer of adhesive tie resins, Yparex management decided that the best way we could contribute was by formulating the greenest tie resin we could make."

A pilot plant at the Enshede site is making the new tie-layer resin, which is based on the company's existing Yparex brand resin. Van den Berg refuses to divulge any process details or the scale of the pilot plant.

The new polymer is the first of what the company hopes will become a growing family of bio-based "green" tie-layer grades that will appeal to manufacturers who are keen to reduce carbon footprints and offer more sustainable products.

"We are shipping our first lot of green Yparex Renew resin to an innovative film producer this month (September) for evaluation," he adds.

BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, also is targeting adhesive coatings with the addition of a pilot coating and laminating plant at its Center of Competence for Adhesive Coatings in Ludwigshafen.

The new plant will facilitate development of adhesive systems for flexible packaging, labels, tapes and functional film coatings. It increases capacity for customer tests and speeds up development of new products as well as adaption of existing adhesive formulations to new carrier materials.

"The universal laboratory coater produces exact reproducible coatings of water-based and UV acrylate hot-melt systems, only requiring a minimum quantity of one kilo of adhesive. The pre-treatment and lamination of a variety of film combinations is possible without any problems," says Jürgen Pfister, head of dispersions for adhesives and fiber bonding Europe.

BASF is claiming a new world record for its pilot coater, which has reached a coating speed of 1,800 m/minute (Figure 2). The company plans to invest nearly €1 million ($1.26 million) annually to further develop the technology.

BASF also plans to continue joint work with Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, Heidelberg, and the Technical University Darmstadt, Germany, following the successful conclusion of the first phase of the so-called NanoPEP (nanostructuring and plastic electronics print platform) project. The effort, which started in the summer of 2009, has focused on using nano-based functional materials to generate technologies for applications such as organic circuits, photovoltaic storage devices and organic LEDs.

Specially designed nanoparticles serve as building blocks for functional materials created by new process technologies in a tool-box-like system. A subsequent step transforms these materials into printable suspensions. The researchers rely on innovative hybrid materials consisting of inorganic and organic components to achieve perfect electronic functionality in the printed film without the need for intermediate process steps such as stabilization of the materials.

The team has successfully operated a pilot plant capable of producing 1-kg batches of materials. The next phase of the NanoPEP project will be a two-year project to transfer the processes involved to an industrial scale.

BP, London, also is ratcheting up efforts to develop new materials. The company is investing $100 million in a new BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM).

Based at the University of Manchester, U.K., BP-ICAM will draw on expertise from other academic institutions including the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The ten-year program focuses on seven primary areas, but new structural materials such as composites that are suitable for high-pressure and high-temperature process applications are getting top priority. Pilot facilities at the University of Manchester likely will play a central part in this work.

"Advanced materials and coatings will be vital in finding, producing and processing energy safely and efficiently in the years ahead, as energy producers work at unprecedented depths, pressures and temperatures, and as refineries, manufacturing plants and pipeline operators seek ever better ways to combat corrosion and deploy new materials to improve their operations," notes Bob Dudley, group chief executive, in explaining the company's strategy.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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