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Government Grant to Fund Development Trials at Ethanol Pilot Print E-mail
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Written by Anna Strom   
Tuesday, 23 October 2012 14:55
Scientists on the Bio4Energy Biochemical Platform have won a grant KB UR MS Biochem 1012Kris Berglund (left), Ulrika Rova and Magnus Sjöblom of Bio4Energy won a grant to trial production of butyeric acid at the 10,000-litre scale. Photo: Leif Nyberg, Luleå University of Technology
designed to support trials at the Ethanol Pilot—Sweden’s only large-scale demonstration unit for biorefinery production, at Örnsköldsvik—of a bio-based acid that may be used as a food ingredient, solvent or aroma, in cosmetic applications or as a softener in plastics.

Thanks to the SEK3.9 million grant from the Swedish Energy Agency, Bio4Energy researchers Kris Berglund, Ulrika Rova and Magnus Sjöblom, all of Luleå University of Technology (LTU), next month will start trials to scale up production of butyric acid from forest-sourced raw materials or agricultural residue.

Having perfected the technology in their research laboratories at LTU in northern Sweden and at Michigan State University, U.S.A., the researchers would attempt to scale up by several steps an anaerobic fermentation process in which bacteria converts biomass into the high-value chemical in question, Berglund said, on the phone from LTU where he is a professor.

Moving into more complex materials

This is different from the trials that have been done to date at the Ethanol Pilot—owned jointly as a limited company by Umeå University and LTU, togheter with the minor shareholder SEKAB, a commercial company—to scale up production of ethanol, specialty chemicals or even new materials using yeast fermentation to convert lignocellulosic biomass or cellulose on its own. 
  
“The idea now is to move onto using more complex materials and to create high-value products to help drive the overall economy of the biorefinery", according to Berglund;

“Our aim is (to achieve an) efficient production of this chemical" that is butyric acid.

"We know how it works at the lab scale… We are skipping a bunch of intermediate scale-up steps. We go from two-to-three litres to 10,000 litres. This means we do years (worth of) of work in two months time”, he said, referring to the researchers' plans to achieve the trials by the end of 100 days, during which the demonstration unit will be operated by an 'E-Technology' branch of SEKAB.

"Our goal is to obtain sufficient results at the 10,000-litre scale for future commercialising of the product", added the LTU assistant professor Rova, also from Luleå.

Funding secured until year end

As late as December 2011, SEKAB, the award-winning clean technology company in charge of running the demonstration unit since cellulosic ethanol development trials started in 2004, announced that it could no longer shoulder the sole responsibility for running the plant due to a lack of funding.

With the new LTU project, however, the company's director of research Sune Wännström said he saw a glimmer of hope for the continued operation of much of the demonstration unit and for a diversification of the product range, since the trials by the BioEnergy researchers might help leverage investment and since SEKAB E-Technology, for its part, could keep its already halved operational staff at least until the end of the year.

“This is a great improvement that augurs well for the continuation of the plant. We are very positive about it”, Wännström said of the news of the Energy Agency grant.

The demonstration unit owner, EtanolPiloten i Sverige AB, "has been fortunate to gain funding for Q3 and now also for Q4”, he said with reference to operations in the last six months of 2012.

Wännström said that another positive development was the fact that SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden was eyeing the possibility of taking over responsibility for operating and selling time at the plant and conducting a study on the feasibility of doing so, to be concluded by year end.

Such a take over by SP could mean “new possibilities to broaden (the palette of) biorefinery products beyond cellulosic products. This would increase the possibility of keeping the knowledge base and for business to continue”.  

He pointed out that many a stakeholder, not only researchers and companies, but also the government agencies VINNOVA and the Energy Agency, had expressed interest in seeing the Ethanol Pilot live on as Sweden’s demonstration unit for large-scale testing of biorefinery products of the future.

To date, there had been investments totalling SEK0.5 billion, he said, the lion's share of which drawn from public coffers. “There have been 20 years of development (corresponding to an investment of) 20-to-25 million per year for eight years".

The Ethanol Pilot "is the first large-scale demonstration unit taken into action in Sweden—and we are contemplating a shut down.

“That would be a blow. That would bring the activities at the Ethanol Pilot to a standstill”.

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Joint coverage by a Bio4Energy partner:  

Luleå University of Technology press release