Several such collaborative, cross-disciplinary projects, have received support from the Bio4Energy Strategic Funds. This fund only sponsors projects of the highest academic caliber and which are potentially useful for a range of actors along the value chain of relevant biorefinery products. A Bio4Energy Researchers’ Meeting, 15 October at Luleå, highlighted a few such "strategic" B4E projects.
In this review, B4E Communications has received a helping hand from researchers directly involved in shaping these projects and who gave presentations at the meeting.
B4E researchers have launched a study on the use of algal biomass in thermal energy conversion. Characteristics of two types of algae are being assessed with a view to map their fundamental properties relevant to fuel making and their applicability in thermal conversion processes. Pyrolysis, gasification and combustion are such processes.
The thermal conversion of biomass study is part of larger R&D project in which both microalgae and cyanobacteria are being cultivated in an integrated process developed and tested by B4E researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Their aim is to develop an efficient and sustainable process for producing industrial quantities of green algae, the amino acid arginine and fish feed, all the while rendering a water purification service to a local energy utility. (See the B4E Newsletter of July 2013.)
In the part of the R&D project dealing with the thermal conversion of biomass, researchers have been studying the conversion properties of thermal fuels, ash content and composition, as well as fuel mineral content and ash melting properties. This is because different parts, or fractions, of the algal biomass have different composition in terms of organic (carbohydrate, protein, lipid) and inorganic (ash, nitrogen, phosphorous, trace metal) content, and may "behave" differently in terms of emissions and conversion properties, the researchers said.
Trials of "large" samples of the algae had been scheduled at the waste water facility of an energy utility at Umeå in northern Sweden, B4E researcher Christoffer Boman revealed. Combustion and gasification tests would be carried out of pure algae and of a mixture of algae and other biomass-based feedstock, the Umeå University researcher said.
The resulting study or studies would discuss the suitability of the different conversion methods in terms of industrial upscaling, as well as ash formation and operational problems which might have been identified, such as slagging and fouling. The researchers would also investigate whether certain types of emissions would have to be further controlled. These could be gaseous emissions of nitrogen oxides or solid emissions of particulate matter, Boman suggested.
The B4E research group focusing on the thermal conversion of biomass said it had started collaborative projects with Australian, Finnish and Italian counterparts regarding the use of algal biomass in thermal conversion processes.The algal biomass in thermal energy conversion project is designed to develop methods and tools for the cost and resource efficient production of algal biomass which may be upscaled to commercial quantities and turned into bio-oil or "green" chemicals, Boman said. The part of the project which concerned finding a cost-efficient and low-polluting method for making arginine—which amino acid has been shown to be an efficient fertilizer with a considerably lower environmental impact than traditional nitrogen-based fertilizers—was being closely watched by industry and academia, he added.
Pilot and demonstration facilities are part of building a European bioeconomy and different biorefinery concepts, to believe researchers on the B4E Process Integration and Environmental Platforms, respectively. Those units act as a bridge between research breakthroughs and technological development on the one hand, and industrial application and commercial deployment, on the other, they said.
In a "pre-study" the B4E researchers started by reviewing the existing literature on the role of pilot and demonstration facilities in R&D management and innovation policy. As a second step, they carried out case studies of the way in which government funds have been used to develop commercial biorefinery production units in Sweden, at Örnsköldsvik and Piteå, respectively.
In a forthcoming project the group will evaluate which assessment methods may be most useful when it comes to gauging societal benefits of biorefinery pilot and demonstration facilities in the context of designing political incentives for putting in place a bioeconomy. At the 15 October B4E Researchers' Meeting, the researchers said they expected to issue recommendations to policy makers as a result of the study.
These would serve to point to policy tools and management measures that could render such facilities "more" beneficial to society and for technology development. The role of various Sweden-based stakeholders in the upscaling or commercialisation process would be addressed and compared with "international" policies and support measures designed to guide the management of large scale pilot and demonstration activities in the context of the bioeconomy, the researchers concluded.
Fuel production from biomass has largely been focused on bioethanol and biodiesel production, according to project researchers. "Limitations" seen in the raw material base had pushed researchers to start to investigate butanol as a complement to those fuels in industrial-scale biofuel making, they said.
Butanol has been shown to have superior fuel properties compared with ethanol in regard to energy content and handling, both.
Butanol has been shown to have superior fuel properties compared with ethanol in regard to energy content and handling, both. This alcohol also used as a solvent has turned out to be compatible in different blends with ethanol and, in some cases, diesel.
In a project supported by the Swedish Knowledge Centre for Renewable Transportation Fuels, of which B4E is a member, the researchers investigated whether butanol might be produced using a new hybrid process to reduce the amount of raw material input needed and to increase butanol yield.
The process hinged on the biomass being converted in two steps and had been adapted for an annual production of 10,000 tonnes of butanol. Fermentation of succinic acid in a process that consumed carbon dioxide (CO2) was followed by a catalytic reduction step which generated butanol.
The price of butanol produced via the petrochemical route hovered around $1,000-1,650 per tonne of finished product, according to the researchers. In their study they showed that, to be cost competitive with petrochemically-produced butanol, the new biochemical process had to be integrated with large-scale biorefinery production or the price of feedstock—which, they said, corresponded to 70 per cent of production costs—had to be lowered. To lower costs, the researchers recommended that the catalytic conversion step be "directly linked" to the succinic acid recovery process.
Their study, which focused on the conversion of solid, purified succinic acid, showed that their hybrid process would need 22 per cent less raw material than the butanol fermentation at a succinic acid fermentation yield of 0.7 grammes per gramme of substrate. In this scenario, 6,000 to 20,000 tonnes of CO2 would be "fixed" (i.e. captured and stored in the fuel, Ed's note) depending on the conditions of the succinic acid fermentation.
A SAFT-based model was used to represent thermodynamic properties (such as density, gas solubility/selectivity, heat capacity and excess enthalpy) and combined with friction theory to represent viscosity.
To enhance the sorption rate, an IL may be used as a thin film attached to a porous, structured support like carbon, which leads to it behaving differently from ILs in bulk. Therefore, the SAFT-based model was combined with density functional theory to represent the fluid behavior in confined porous materials. A comparison of the modelled results with experimental data and molecular simulation revealed that the SAFT-based model was capable of representing and predicting the fluid's behavioral properties with "high accuracy and reliability", according to the researchers.
Recently, a new class of solvents called "switchable" solvents and polyionic liquids were developed to improve the range and performance of absorption media used for CO2 removal. Beside being highly efficient at capturing CO2, switchable ILs (SILs) offered the further advantage of not requiring any organic synthesis protocols, the researchers said.
In terms of efficiency in the CO2 removal, the SILs were deemed to be clearly superior to "classical" ILs (by a factor of two). Moreover, the B4E researchers' study revealed some of the structural effects of various mixtures based on DBU and (amino) alcohols. The results demonstrated that CO2 absorption behavior of the solutions studied was influenced by the structure of the alcohols.
Credit for the research presentations summarised above goes to following B4E researchers:
Christoffer Boman, Umeå University (UmU)
Mattias Holmlund, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Patrik Söderholm, Luleå University of Technology (LTU)
Hans Hellsmark, SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden
Robert Nilsson, LTU
Xiaoyan Ji, LTU
Dilip Raut, UmU
Gulou Shen, LTU