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York chemist creates solution to boost biorefineries

Posted on 25 July 2016

University of York chemists have come up with a unique solution to ensure biorefineries are economically resilient to oil price fluctuations.

Biorefinery (credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr)

Biorefineries produce ethanol fuels from non-petroleum sources, notably biomass. However, if oil prices are relatively cheap, there is less economic incentive for biorefineries to produce ‘greener’ ethanol fuel due to the production expense involved.

Biomass consists of three major components: lignin, hemicellulose and cellulose. Ethanol fuel is produced from the cellulose component, but in this process up to 25 percent of cellulosic sugars go to waste.

Dr Mario De Bruyn, Postdoctoral Research Associate, and colleagues in York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence in the Chemistry Department, have developed an innovative, simple and scalable method to produce an additional chemical product from these leftover sugars – levoglucosenone.

Levoglucosenone forms the basis of fuels, pharmaceuticals, a range of solvents and 1,6-hexandiol – an essential component in Nylon.

Dr De Bruyn explains: “Before 2014 gasoline at the pump was prohibitively expensive. Under conditions where the oil price exceeds the broad $70-100 mark, it is viable to make fuels from non-petroleum sources. With the current geo-political situation, oil prices are closer to $40-50, so the profitability and thus the incentive to make ethanol fuel from biomass in biorefineries has been eroded.”

“To alter the economics of biorefineries, we have been looking at getting more out of biomass than just ethanol. Many strategies have been explored to make better use of hemicellulose and lignin but these have proven challenging. Our invention deals with the inefficiencies in biorefineries where not all the cellulose is converted into ethanol.”

“This could have huge industrial impact, as the sugar production requires no additional technology and is easily scalable.”

Additionally, the Green Chemistry team has developed a one-step process to convert levoglucosenone to Cyrene, a benign and sustainable solvent that can replace current industrial toxic solvents such as NMP and DMF. Cyrene is currently being taken to pilot scale by Circa Group in Tasmania. The new invention can help turn this solvent into a worldwide product.  

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