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Technology to break down biomass and unlock polysaccharides develops

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Jim Dumesic’s group received attention in 2014 after publishing a paper in the journal, Science, describing a new technology for breaking down biomass and unlocking its polysaccharides. These sugars could be compared to sugar for microbes and can be fermented to ethanol, or upgraded into a host of high value chemicals currently made from petroleum.

At the crux of their method is a solvent derived from biomass itself, called gamma valerolactone (GVL). The GVL created in the reaction is recycled and used again to fuel the reaction.

Evidence suggests that the method is faster and cheaper than its competitors, without relying on expensive enzyme cocktails that take days to work and must be tailored to the reactants.

“Our process can work in a matter of hours and on any biomass we have ever used, such as corn stover, wood, leftovers from sugar cane and residues from paper mills,” says Jim Dumesic, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and pioneer of this technology. The process works most effectively in 50ml batches, which may have little practical value to a biorefinery that operates in tens of t.

Dumesic reports that the team was able to achieve 80 times the original production, with sugar yields topping 75% and 65% for xylose and glucose, respectively. Along the way steps were streamlined steps and factors such as reaction temperature and acid concentration were optimised.

In addition to the sugars, strong streams of ‘native’ lignin are being produced, that can have a variety of industrial and commercial uses. (‘Native’ here means the lignin is not chemically altered by the process and, therefore, prized by researchers normally restricted to the byproducts of paper mills).

With support from the Accelerator Program, Dumesic and team have been working for the past 18 months to prove the method can be applied to larger scale environments. Dumesic said, “the funding has been essential to move the process ahead,” and was grateful for the ability to develop his process and achieve results. The engineering department and the Forest Products Laboratory both helped Dumesic gain access to a reactor already in use, saving significant time and resources, accrediting Accelerator for bringing the researchers together. “The funding enabled us to work with the Forest Products Laboratory to modify their apparatus. Without that we never could have scaled up to the two litre level”.

For future developments both teams will work together again to design an extruder system that operates in a continuous flow mode, like a real refinery, making the process more commercially viable.

Dumesic’s research has a wide scope on the current biofuels market. Industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, polymers, and even lubricants for example are all products that can be made from sustainable resources and compete on price. “Gasoline is very easy to make from petroleum. All you do is distill it. But you can make the case that other things like lubricants are harder to make from petroleum and rather easy to make from renewables,” he says. “So there is a market there.”

With support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation(WARF) Dumesic has helped found two startup companies in recent years, Virent Inc. and Glucan Biorenewables. “It’s possible, but very challenging, to be a professor and stay with a startup,” he says. “Often times it’s the graduate students and postdoctorates who want to run with it and get the technology out into the real world.”

Glucan Bio, with a location in the University Research Park in Madison, is taking the GVL method in several directions. One of these relates to the production of a valuable chemical feedstock called furfural, found in agricultural formulations, herbicides and flavourants. Furfural production has gone almost entirely to China, says Dumesic, because the process of making it is energy intensive and traditionally requires corn cobs. “The way corn is harvested now, no one is saving the cobs,” he says. “So there is no domestic source of furfural currently available.” Glucan Bio intends to be that source, and if the technology they are developing works out, then importers of furfural are sure to want to open communications.

Adapted from press release by Francesca Brindle

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