Aiming to reduce dependence on imported oil, the the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Dow Chemical Company announced an agreement today to jointly develop and evaluate a process that will convert biomass to ethanol, as well as a range of other chemical products, by making use of a new mixed alcohol catalyst developed by Dow.
The thermochemical process would cut CO2 exhaust emissions by as much as 80% and not rely on food crops. Biomass, such as the leaves and stem of corn plants and wood waste, will be used as feedstock and first converted into bio-synthesis gas, or syngas, through the application of high pressure, heat, steam and oxygen then converted into ethanol and other useful chemical alcohols by passing it through reactor where biochemical reaction driven by Dow’s catalyst will produce ethanol and other useful bio-based chemical building blocks.
The joint evaluation program will focus on improving the mixed alcohol catalyst, as well as demonstrating pilot scale performance and the commercial relevance of an integrated facility, according to a Dow Chemical media release.
Biomass to Biofuel, Bio-based Chemicals
Biofuel proponents are looking to develop commercially viable second-generation biomass-to-ethanol technology as a way to shift ethanol production away from food crops, such as corn, palm oil and even sugar cane, which have come under heavy criticism again as food prices surge, sparking protests and riots in developing and developed economies around the world.
Dow notes that a recent study by the USDA and DOE concluded that there are1.3 billion tons of biomass available in the U.S., the equivalent of nearly 2 billion barrels of oil per year, which is approximately equal to the total amount of oil the U.S. imports each year.
While corn ethanol has an energy balance ratio (energy yield over energy required for production) of 1.3 to 1 cellulosic ethanol’s is 6 to 1.
Biomass-to-ethanol processes also hold out the promise of improving on first gen ethanol’s carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions profile. The net effect of the process offers a potential 80% reduction in CO2 emissions as compared to fossil fuels, though Dow notes that some fossil fuels will be required for harvesting, biomass transportation and product distribution, at least initially.
Thermochemical, as compared to biochemical, processes convert higher percentages of feedstock into fuel. They also enable ethanol to be produced from almost any type of biomass, and of inconsistent quality, such as corn stover – stalks and leaves – in one go.
In order to gasify the biomass feedstock temperatures in the initial stages of the biomass-to-ethanol production process Dow and NREL will be developing and testing will exceed 550ÀöC.
The added attraction of the process producing other bio-based chemicals that might be used to manufacture a tremendously wide range of plastic products is a significant one for Dow. A diversified chemical industry giant with annual sales of $54 billion, the company employs 46,000 people worldwide.
“This agreement exemplifies how Dow uses its technology to generate sustainable solutions that address energy challenges in the U.S., while building our portfolio of alternative energy and feedstock options,” stated Juan Luciano, Dow’s business president of Hydrocarbons and Energy, in the media release. “By using ethanol derived from biomass as an alternative raw material or feedstock, Dow is exploring new ways to reduce the cost and volatility of its inputs to produce chemicals and plastics that are essential to a wide range of consumer products.”