August 25, 2007

Creating products from the residuals of bioconversion

One of the true achievements that came from the development of the petroleum industry is the creative ways that have been found to dispose of refinery residuals. The entire plastics industry owes much to the innovation of chemical companies like DuPont who found ways to take the "sows ears" of petroleum and make "silk purses" out of them - fibers, plastics, fertilizers, and chemicals. Unfortunately, many of these products are not biodegradeable.

For biofuels to compete successfully with fossil fuels, every part of "the pig" will have to have a separate profit stream. Distiller dried grains (DDG) is a good example since it is the primary byproduct of the corn to ethanol fermentation process. But researchers are looking to see if there are more profitable byproducts than DDGs. And what about the residuals of emerging processes like gasification, enzymatic hydrolysis, depolymerization, biodiesel production, etc? Can we sequester carbon in some of these products?

Biopact has an excellent update on new research that seek to expand the number of profit streams that make bioconversion development more financially viable.

Steps to biorefining: new products from biofuel leftovers

The vision behind the emerging bioeconomy is the creation of integrated biorefineries that turn any given stream of biomass into an optimal range of finished products, green platform chemicals and specialty chemical compounds. The goal is to make the processing steps as efficient as possible, and to have them 'cascading' so that one bioconversion step's 'waste' stream becomes an input for a next step. Ultimately, biofuels will be just one of the many renewable, low-carbon products and compounds manufactured in the biorefinery.

Many researchers are pursuing on this concept, and the most common approach is to utilize currently available byproducts from biofuels - distillers’ dry grain from corn ethanol, lignin from cellulosic ethanol or glycerin from biodiesel - as a starting point for research. But some scientists are going further already, and are adapting the biofuel production process itself in such a way that it may yield more interesting co-products. This is the way forward to genuine biorefining.

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