ECN has developed a novel process, FabiolaTM, to fractionate biomass such as hardwood chips and wheat straw, rendering a high yield of valuable building blocks for bio-based products at potentially lower cost and process energy demand.
New technologies are needed for balancing economic growth and its environmental impact by utilising biomass components to replace petroleum-derived energy carriers and chemicals. “The conversion of biomass to green fuels and building blocks for bio-based products is indispensable for a sustainable and circular economy”, says ECN researcher Arjan Smit.
Lignocellulose is the main structural component of plant cell walls and consists of a complex of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Due to its recalcitrant nature, relatively harsh conditions are applied in conventional processes for the fractionation of lignocellulose, which negatively effects product yield, product quality and process economy.
ECN has developed a mild fractionation process, FabiolaTM , which has a large potential for improving the cost-effective pretreatment of biomass. Fractionation of wheat straw, corn stover and various hardwoods such as poplar, beech and birch resulted in high sugar yields from the (hemi)cellulose. The sugars can be converted to fuels and building blocks for amongst others plastics. The isolated lignin showed remarkable characteristics as compared to lignin obtained by other pretreatment processes. Lignin characterisation and its application as feedstock for aromatic polymers and monomers are currently being worked on. In addition to improved product yields and quality, the combination of solvent and process conditions holds potential for a significant reduction of operating cost and energy demand which further improves the economic viability of the process. The research is now published in the high-impact scientific journal Green Chemistry.
Cooperation between ECN and Fraunhofer-Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes CBP has resulted in first successful scale-up tests in the “lignocellulose biorefinery pilot plant”. Fractionation of beech wood chips in a 400 l digester, produced lignin, pulp and C6+ C5 sugar syrups on kg scale, and data required to evaluate the process performance and to mitigate/minimise the scale-up risks.
Currently ECN is working towards finalising process design, techno-economic evaluation and building a consortium to further develop FabiolaTM towards market implementation.
A parallel technology development aims to increase the biorefinery feedstock flexibility by pre-extraction and fractionation of agricultural and industrial residues such as manure fibers, tomato stems and grasses. Key drivers are increased biomass availability at lower prices and valorisation of nutrients towards fertilizers which can significantly improve the economy and sustainability of the FabiolaTM process.