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Novel Biomass-based Technology for Sustainable Bioeconomy

Published: Apr 1, 2009

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Abstract:

Rising energy costs, increasing human populations, and concerns over climate change and the use of fossil fuels are driving global efforts to transition toward a sustainable “green” bioeconomy. This transition towards bioeconomy will require lots of biomass feedstocks, development of advanced and robust biomass-based technologies and construction of industrial ecology-based biorefineries under the overarching principle of sustainability. Ethanol has helped to effectively manage the increasing demand and global warming impacts of fossil fuels, however, the future advanced biofuels must be produced from non-food sources. Forest biomass, is one of these non-food sources, that can be used to create a wide range of industrial and consumer “bioproducts,” including transportation and heating fuels, wood-based chemicals, product “fillers” and more. These forest-based biofuels and bioproducts are generated  using appropriate conversion technologies and will generally serve to replace petroleum-derived products currently in the marketplace. Many of these production technologies are nearing commercial viability and may shape the future of bioeconomy in the US and beyond.

Depending on processing technologies and development strategy, an emerging bioproducts industry has the potential to transform industrial facilities like pulp and paper mills into “biorefineries” able to manufacture a wide array of products at a single location. These biochemical and thermochemical technologies include fermentation, gasification, pyrolysis and fractionation. Fermentation is a biological process in which enzymes break down simple sugars and convert simple plant sugars into alcohols, including fuel-grade ethanol. Technologies to produce “second generation” biofuels like cellulosic ethanol from low-sugar feedstocks (e.g., woody biomass and agricultural waste) are less mature and face obstacles in reaching commercial scale due to high concentrations of low carbon sugars. Gasification converts biomass to syngas through rapid heating in a reduced-oxygen environment. Because syngas is gaseous, it readily mixes with oxygen and thus results in a more efficient and cleaner fuel than the liquid- or solid-phase feedstocks from which it was created. Pyrolysis is a thermal process where biomass is rapidly heated in an oxygen-free environment to a set temperature, then rapidly cooled to produce bio-oil , which can be used as a fuel or as a platform to develop other high-value chemicals. Fractionation, the least developed conversion process, breaks wood into its constituent components of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin.

To support the urgent issues and challenges in the areas of environment/climate change, renewable resources and energy production, a new developed technology at the University of Maine is currently being assessed for its possible commercialization. Though there are several competing and near commercialized technologies for biofuel production, this paper will only focus on the “near neutral” hemicellullose based technology for ethanol production. In this paper, I will review the factors that drive the evolution of this innovative technology in the forest sector. I will examine the range of issues likely to affect its full commercialization. I will evaluate its current stage of development and how this technology works well with existing Kraft pulp and paper technology to create a forest biorefinery in Maine. I will also discuss our experiences and challenges to scale up and commercialize this technology. I will also look at the challenges of increasing its economic yield while considering its environmental and social impacts and benefits. The importance of conducting life cycle assessment (LCA) will also be briefly covered to highlight the increasing policy requirement of assessing the environmental implications of any promising technology and product.

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