Drop-in fuels will soon come from plant-derived chemicals
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The flow-through reaction setup progressively dissolves biomass producing fractions that are rich in (from left to right) lignin monomers, hemicellulose and cellulose-derived sugars.

The flow-through reaction setup progressively dissolves biomass producing fractions rich in (from left to right) lignin monomers, cellulose-derived sugars and hemicellulose.

Researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a procedure which uses a plant-derived chemical to create a concentrated stream of sugars that is ripe with possibility for drop-in biofuels.

What about it?

Jeremy Luterbacher, a UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher and the paper’s lead author is positive about the possibilities that the sugar platform has in the energy sector. “You’ve taken fewer forks down the conversion road, which leaves you with more end destinations, such as cellulosic ethanol and drop-in biofuels,” he said. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (CLBRC) has published its findings in today’s issue of the journal Science, where it explains how they use gamma valerolactone, or GVL, to deconstruct plants and create sugars that can be biologically or chemically upgraded into drop-in biofuels.

Since GVL is made from plant material, it is both renewable and less expensive than conversion methods which require expensive enzymes or chemicals.  In addition, the process converts 85 to 95 percent of the original material to sugars that can be fed to yeast for fermentation into ethanol, or chemically upgraded furans to produce drop-in biofuels.

Is it possible?

In order to proof the economic viability of this new scientific advance, Luterbacher concentrated the sugar,  removed the gamma valerolactone for reuse with a low-energy separation step, and showed that yeast could successfully generate ethanol from the sugar stream. “What’s neat is that we can use additives to make the solution separate, it becomes like oil and vinegar,” he explained. The additive chosen for the separation process is liquid carbon dioxide. “It’s green, nontoxic and can be removed by simple depressurization once you want GVL and solutions of sugar to mix again. It’s the perfect additive,” he said. He added that feeding the resulting sugar solution to microorganisms has demonstrated that what is being produced is not a toxic chemical byproduct that would kill the yeast.

The outcomes

An initial economic evaluation of the process has shown that this technology could produce ethanol at a cost savings of roughly 10 percent when compared with current technologies. During the past years Steenbock Professor James Dumestic and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UW-Madison Michael Boudart have studied the generation of gamma valerolactone from biomass. This research has contributed new knowledge to the biofuels panorama and resulted in four different patent applications. It also gained acknowledgment for GVL’s commercial potential from WARF’s Accelerator Program, which helps license high potential technologies faster by addressing precise technical hurdles with specific funding and expert advice from seasoned business mentors in related areas.

Dumestic will be the main researcher at the WARF’s Accelerator Program in an 18-month project involving the construction of a high-efficiency biomass reactor which will use gamma valerolactone to produce concentrated streams of intact lignin solids and high-value sugars. Samples will be delivered to scientific collaborators who will optimize strategies for transforming the materials into valuable fuels and chemicals.

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