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UTIA Research Continues To Advance Biofuels, Bioenergy and Biobased Products

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David Harper, an associate professor of materials science in the UT Center for Renewable Carbon, will lead UTIA’s newest research effort to develop affordable commercial biofuels and bioenergy with a $1.4M award from the U.S. Department of Energy. Photo by T. Salvador, courtesy UTIA.

DOE Announces New Grant in Excess of $1M

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. ― Researchers with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture continue to be at the forefront of the development of commercial applications for biofuels as well as biobased energy and biobased products.

David Harper, an associate professor of materials science in the UT Center for Renewable Carbon, will lead UTIA’s newest effort, which is a $1.4M award from the U.S. Department of Energy. The funding will be made available over the next two years through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) — a joint program organized through DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal of projects funded through BRDI is to develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of biomass and increase the availability of competitively priced renewable fuels and biobased products.

Affordable commercial applications of biofuels and biobased products will improve the nation’s energy security by increasing and diversifying our domestic energy sources.

Harper says the research will build on existing science to use plant materials from grasses, hardwoods and softwoods to produce commercially valuable products like chemicals, fuels and industrial materials. The goal is to get the biobased products, including fuel, more cost effective. “We can do this by loading biomass into a solvent at greater than 20 percent in the presence of catalysts to deconstruct and separate plant sugars from lignin,” Harper explains. “Plant sugars, cellulose and hemicelluloses, will then be upgraded to liquid aviation fuels, or alkanes. Lignin will then be readily converted into carbon foams and activated carbons. The carbon then becomes the basis for products like filters and high-temperature insulation. It can also be used for energy storage, such as in lithium ion batteries.”

Lignin is the general term used for complex aromatic polymers found in the cell walls of plants, especially in woods and barks. Lignin provides plants the rigidity they need to grow upward and even keeps them from rotting easily. While it is the second most abundant natural polymer in the world, behind cellulose, lignin’s value has been mostly limited to use as a fuel for boilers needed in papermaking. Affordably converting the readily available but nuisance byproduct into useful industrial products could provide the catalyst needed for a vibrant, sustainable biobased economy to take hold.

Harper adds that a number of intermediate chemicals are also produced as plant sugars are refined into fuels, which makes the biorefining process economically similar to that of petroleum refining. “These intermediates are high purity cellulose, HMF, levulinic acid, and gamma-valerolactone ― or GVL ― all have established markets. GVL is used as an extremely effective solvent for fractionating biomass. It has the benefit of a high boiling point leading to little solvent loss and being created as a coproduct,” he says. Harper goes on to add, “We are creating a portfolio of high-value products from plant biomass. These products will enable the production of biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol, that are less expensive for industry and consumers alike.”

A stated goal for the DOE-funded projects is to help lower the costs of the production of biobased fuels and help the Bioenergy Technologies Office to meet its goal of less than $3 per gallon gasoline equivalent for advanced biofuels.

Harper also holds a faculty appointment in the UT Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries. In addition to Harper, the project team will include David Martin Alonso and Jeff Fornero of Glucan Biorenewables; James Dumesic, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Christos Maravelias also of the University of Wisconsin; and Steve Chmely with the UT Center for Renewable Carbon. The UT researchers will lead the development of the lignin products. Glucan Biorenwables will fractionate the biomass, and the team from the University of Wisconsin will upgrade byproducts into fuel and evaluate the economics of the overall process.

Also named in the DOE announcement is Northwestern University. Researchers there will be working through a separate grant to develop the rapid synthesis of next-generation biofuels and bioproducts from lignocellulosic biomass.

The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture celebrates 50 years of excellence in providing Real. Life. Solutions. through teaching, discovery and service. ag.tennessee.edu.

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