Patently Making Progress

How one university is poised to introduce revolutionary biorefining technology
By Bryan Sims | January 30, 2012

A unique noncatalytic thermal-cracking technology developed under the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education supercluster program at the University of North Dakota is poised for commercialization. UND has received patent approval for the invention titled “Methods to Produce Short Chain Carboxylic Acids and Esters from Biomass.”

Wayne Seames, professor of chemical engineering and director of the SUNRISE program, says the technology “cracks” triacylglyceride (TG) oils that are inherently found in a variety of oilseed crops as well as other high oil-bearing organic materials like algae, microbes and waste cooking oils, into long- and short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids can then be extracted from the reactor using water or a base and then purified into a range of commercial-grade biobased chemicals.

“There are a lot of uses for these chemicals and a lot of it depends on how long the fatty acid chain is,” Seames tells Biorefining Magazine. “The very short ones are really good for polymers because they form lots of repeating units, which you want in polymers.” The smallest of the short-chain fatty acids is acetic acid, the primary acid in vinegar. “Some plants, algae and bacteria naturally store excess energy in TG oils,” Seames says. Additional uses of the TG oils include transforming them into a class of fatty acid esters, many of which are naturally synthesized in nature.

The technology is also capable of making advanced hydrocarbon distillate fuels and cuts of naphtha. “If you take say a gallon of your inlet TG oil and crack it, it will make 50 to 60 percent of that inlet oil into fuel and 20 to 30 percent into these acids,” Seames says. “The short-chain fatty acids have higher sales prices than the fuel products, so by recovering and purifying the acids, you now have a more economical facility. It’s truly a biorefinery, as it has multiple products that you’re making.”

Seames says a number of outside entities have expressed interest in licensing the technology. “We’re looking for that one great partner that has the vision, the financial backing and a good business team in place that can take these technologies big time,” he says.

—Bryan Sims