Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a process for obtaining three high-value products from biomass in one fell swoop. The team, led by James Dumesic, professor of chemical and biological engineering, published their results May 19, 2017, in the journal Science Advances.
The key for turning three components – cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – of non-edible biomass into distinct products is a solvent derived from plant material, gamma valerolactone (GVL).
“GVL is very effective at fractionating the biomass,” stated David Martin Alonso, the study’s first author and a researcher in chemical and biological engineering at UW–Madison. “But it is also much more stable than other solvents, allowing us to reuse 99% of it in a closed-loop process. Until now, solvent loss had been a major bottleneck for making a renewable and carbon-efficient bio-refinery economically feasible.”
Several industry sectors, including paper mills and car manufacturers, may potentially benefit from the new technology. Dumesic says the next challenge is to de-risk the technology.
“Now that we have proven that GVL is very effective at separating the three biomass fractions without diminishing their value, we see a path forward to becoming cost-competitive with a petroleum refinery,” he says. “Our next goal is to demonstrate that this new kind of bio-refinery can deliver a wide range of advanced biofuels and commodity chemicals as end products.”