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Written by Anna Strom   
Tuesday, 13 March 2012 15:48
The Bio4Energy website has a new section featuring its latest JonasHedlund HanZhou_ASScientists Jonas Hedlund (right) and Han Zhou of the Bio4Energy Catalysis and Separation Platform work together. Photo by Bio4Energy.
publications, which can be accessed by clicking on the ‘Research’ heading of this website. Although in 2011 B4E was not yet fully operational, its researchers published more than 60 scientific articles in the peer-reviewed literature. 

"This shows that Bio4Energy has already started to deliver results", said Stellan Marklund, manager of the B4E research environment. The Swedish government's "support for Bio4Energy has enabled it to be a catalyst... thanks to which the research has been sped up".

Zeolite membranes for separation

Breakthroughs included results by Jonas Hedlund of Luleå University of Technology and his team on the B4E Catalysis and Separation Platform, which devised a method for characterising defects in zeolite membranes with a size down to 0.7 nanometre.

“Defects”, said professor Hedlund, are holes or “pores” in the membranes which are larger than the 0.5-nm zeolite pores. “It is important to measure how much defects there are in the membrane and then to find ways to remove the defects”, he said. The membranes are designed to filter out undesirable gases or liquids in various processes.  

For instance, in the same line of research, the LTU scientists used ultra-thin zeolite membranes to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from synthesis gas, which is a prerequisite for the “syngas”—a generic term for gases containing varying amounts of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide—to be turned into fuels such as methanol, synthetic diesel or dimethyl ether (DME). Separation of CO2 using zeolite membranes was cheaper and more efficient than separation techniques currently on the market, said Hedlund.

“Current separation techniques (which do not draw on zeolite membranes) are more energy intensive and zeolite membranes may thus reduce energy consumption during production of biofuels and chemicals and reduce the cost of the products”, Hedlund said.

For these reasons membrane research is seen to carry considerable promise. The researchers hope to use the membranes for a number of separations which are important in biorefinery. Hedlund mentioned not only separatation of CO2 from synthesis gas, but also alcohols from water and separation of hydrocarbon isomers.

“Our research group has developed the thinnest zeolite membranes in the world and, consequently, our membranes are exhibiting world-record flux”, the LTU researchers wrote in the Winter 2011 issue of European Energy Innovation magazine.

Zeolite is a natural crystalline material and zeolite powder is used commercially for instance as a softener in laundry detergents. In the case of the LTU zeolite-membrane research, a thin zeolite film is grown on an aluminum disc roughly the size of a €2 coin, but which has microfiltration properties. In future, the researchers hope to create larger membranes apt to function in large-scale industrial processes.

A chief reason for separating CO2 from synthesis gas was, in a second step, to enable industry to produce alternatives to fossil fuels, such as DME. This gas is being tested as a promising "clean" fuel in Sweden in diesel engines. The B4E partner Energy Technology Centre at Piteå is involved in these trials.

Commercial application of the technique for separating CO2 from synthesis gas drawing on zeolite membranes could be five-to-ten years away, Hedlund told Swedish radio 9 February. (Clip provided below, courtesy of Swedish public radio Sveriges Radio.) 

Enzymes to make ethanol efficiently  

The B4E Biochemical Platform invented a method to break down cellulose into sugar by using enzymes in an efficient way and to make the fermentation process itself more efficient. One of the methods meant an improvement of more than 50 per cent of enzymatic saccharification of a cellulosic substrate, platform leader Leif Jönsson of Umeå University said in January.

“Our research points to new ways of avoiding problems related to the inhibition of enzymes and microorganisms used for biotechnological conversion of cellulose to ethanol or other fermentation products”, he said. The researchers in cooperation with industrial partners are seeking to patent these methods for specific uses.

“New collaborations formed as a direct result of B4E,” Jönsson said.
 
New materials from cellulose reject fibre
   
Results yet to be published by Kristiina Oksman, Mehdi Jonoobi and Martha Herrera of the B4E Pretreatment and Fractionation Platform and the LTU Material Sciences’ division, recounted in a LTU press release, reveal a promising technique for designing new materials based on the extraction of nanofibres from cellulose reject fibre from biorefinery operations.

Instead of being a headache to biorefinery operators, the reject fibre—a waste product—may be used as an input material in paper products such as milk cartons. Moreover, the 14 February press release said, the new technique was efficient: "The yield of the manufacture of cellulose nanofibres from the sludge is 95 per cent, (as) compared with cellulose nanofibre production from wood chips 48 per cent, lignin residues 48 per cent, carrot residues... 20 per cent, barley 14 per cent and grass 13 per cent".

"This is definitely the best result we have had in producing nanofibres from different bio-residues", the LTU press release quoted professor Oksman as saying;

"Presumably, this is a very profitable production that more cellulose industries should take interest in".

An interview with Jonas Hedlund, conducted in Swedish by a P4 Norrbotten local public radio, aired on February 9 this year.

Lyssna: Längre reportage: "Membranet kan sänka kostnaderna en hel del"