ECN develops high-yielding biomass fractionation process

By Energy Research Center of the Netherlands | December 11, 2017

The Energy Research Center of the Netherlands has developed a novel process to fractionate biomass such as hardwood chips and wheat straw, rendering a high yield of valuable building blocks for biobased products at potentially lower cost and process energy demand.

New technologies are needed for balancing economic growth and its environmental impact by utilizing 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,” said 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’s mild fractionation process, Fabiola, has great 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 characterization 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 has been published in the 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.

ECN is currently working towards finalizing process design, techno-economic evaluation and building a consortium to further develop Fabiola toward 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 valorization of nutrients towards fertilizers which can significantly improve the economy and sustainability of the Fabiola process.