Renewable Raw Materials
Biofuel and Biochemical Process Development and Scale-up
MATRIC has been very active in assisting commercial partners explore and develop technologies for the conversion of renewable raw materials to chemicals and fuels. Key capabilities at MATRIC that have been important to our partners include:
Techno-economic analysis. Does the envisioned process provide the economic incentive to pursue a development program?
Process chemistry. Is the chemistry practical, and are there alternative chemical routes that could be more effective?
Catalysis. Can better catalysts be identified for any steps that could use them?
Analytical chemistry. Are the yields of the major and minor products defined, and are all of the reaction components identified?
Separations. Can the desired products be economically separated from other process components and purified to the required level?
Process engineering. Does the process scheme offer good raw material and energy efficiency?
Health, safety and environmental. Are there unrecognized risks associated with the technology?
Process scale-up. Can the process be demonstrated in continuous operation at the pilot scale?
MATRIC has technical staff who can work with customers to answer these questions, having experience in related processes based on renewable raw materials that enable them to quickly make contributions to a project. MATRIC also has experimental capabilities to take on projects at any stage of development. We have been engaged by many companies to assist with projects in biomass conversion. Some examples are briefly presented here.
- MATRIC was engaged by BEST Energies, a Wisconsin-based bioenergy company, to develop a continuous process for manufacture of biodiesel. MATRIC proved a process concept at laboratory scale, constructed a pilot plant to demonstrate the technology, and made significant modifications to the process concept to permit use of less expensive and more challenging starting materials. MATRIC then completed the engineering design for a commercial facility, which included novel features that significantly reduced the capital investment and eliminated the need for wastewater treatment. MATRIC oversaw the construction activities for the full-scale commercial plant in Wisconsin. The plant started operation within 22 months of the initial laboratory experiments at MATRIC.
- A bioenergy company engaged MATRIC to assist in the design an integrated biorefinery that included units for biodiesel production, ethanol via fermentation, and electricity generation from biomass and waste digestion. MATRIC provided technical information on the bioenergy processes, developed the integrated design, and carried out an economic analysis for the proposed integrated facility.
- BioAmber developed a proprietary fermentation process to produce succinic acid using raw materials from agriculture and forestry. MATRIC provided chemical process and engineering expertise that led to the development of a novel isolation and purification process for succinic acid. This process has substantially lower capital expenditure and operating expenses than the original concept and currently practiced methods of purification. This effort was recognized by a 2011 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, presented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Chemical Society (ACS). The novel process was demonstrated at the pilot scale in MATRIC’s facilities. MATRIC then prepared the process engineering package for a commercial facility.
- The Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB) was interested in the chemical conversion of corn sugar to isosorbide, a potentially valuable polymer additive, and had sponsored R&D on the technology for several years. When the ICPB decided that a larger scale process was needed, they approached MATRIC. Subsequent work at MATRIC led to an improved larger-scale process, a green separation and purification step, several patent applications, and the shipment of hundreds of pounds of material for applications testing.
- When AKJ Industries was having problems with their existing product line, they asked MATRIC to develop a new side release agent that would prevent wet coal from freezing to the sides of rail cars during winter transport. Within six weeks, MATRIC had devised a method to quantitatively measure the effectiveness of potential products and had formulated a new green product with ten times better performance than the existing side release agents. MATRIC then assisted in the scale-up and commercialization of the new product.
- A company developing technology for production of algae teamed with MATRIC to investigate processes for isolating certain valuable products. Successful laboratory work led to the design and construction of a pilot facility at MATRIC’s site. The unit was operated to demonstrate the technology at large scale and make material for further experimental and commercial evaluation.
- MATRIC was asked to help a company investigate several aspects of the chemical conversion of specific sugars to desired products. This work led to the development of alternative process and separation schemes that have potential for more economical processes.
- A company working the area of algae processing identified an unexpected product and came to MATRIC to assess the potential to obtain value from its isolation. MATRIC proposed catalytic routes to convert the product into more useful materials and demonstrated the concept in laboratory experiments. A preliminary process design was developed, and economic evaluations were performed to estimate the potential for the process.
- MATRIC assisted a company working on the catalytic conversion of biomass into a large-volume chemical product. Initial work on process modeling and simulations helped define some of the separations steps in the envisioned process. Subsequent laboratory work at MATRIC demonstrated that the product could be obtained in high purity.
- A pilot plant for an integrated biorefinery was being designed by a company who initially engaged MATRIC to evaluate the safety risks associated with the project. A multidisciplinary team performed a safety assessment of the design, and it became evident that MATRIC could provide significant assistance in the development of the technology. A laboratory program was initiated at MATRIC to provide experimental data used in the design of the pilot plant.
- A fermentation process that produced a relatively volatile organic product caused safety concerns to the company developing the technology. MATRIC formed an interdisciplinary team to carry out a safety assessment and offer guidance on process modifications to mitigate the risks.
- A new technology for large-scale production of fuels from biomass was of interest as a possible investment opportunity. The potential investor engaged MATRIC to provide an independent assessment of the technology. A multidisciplinary team visited the site where the process was being piloted, analyzed engineering and process data, and performed an in-depth economic analysis of the potential process.
- Biomass conversion usually involves solid-liquid separations. A company investigating ethanol production from cellulosic biomass found difficulties in scaling up this separation. A team of MATRIC engineers visited the site to assess the problem, performed laboratory tests to evaluate potential alternatives, and provided a practical solution.
Although the use of biobased raw materials is still in its infancy, within the next decade a substantial share of chemical products will be based on natural resources. MATRIC intends to be an active participant in that transition.
Sustainability is an issue of concern to many companies who plan to provide the chemicals, plastics and fuels of the future. The consumption of fossil resources needs to be managed to conserve the existing stocks and provide time to invest in research and the development of new technologies.