Process Intensification for Acceleration of Bio & Chemo Catalysis in Biorefining

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Chemistry


Biorefineries take as their feedstock materials from sustainable sources and ideally from non-food competitive sources. These materials are converted into valuable materials which may be used directly in products such as emollients for skin care creams or flavour and fragrances. Alternatively they may in turn be a raw material for a subsequent process which produces more complex products such as a monomer used for production of polyurethanes. However the existing process technologies have been designed for petrochemical based feedstocks. Such processes and the associated equipment have been refined over decades to be optimal for these chemistries and materials. Even when new technologies become available the cost of scrapping old process facilities and replacing them with new equipment may make it economically unattractive. Since the biorefinery industry is still developing there is a significant opportunity to introduce new and innovative processes and process equipment before long term capital investments are irrevocably made. The project seeks to evaluate one such extremely novel proprietary mixing technology which is already producing technology patents in adjacent industry sectors but has not to date been considered in biorefining. Many operations in biorefineries involve using water-insoluble materials. This means that there are solid particles (eg plant material) or droplets of liquids (eg oil) in the reaction mixture. Problems arise because the catalysts or reagents needed to convert the insoluble materials to products have to be dissolved in the water. Therefore, the reactions have to take place at the interface between the solid or oil and the water. In such reactions the intimate mixing of the feedstock and the catalysts is crucial to rapid conversion. We have developed a new type of mixing process that can vastly increase the surface area of the feedstock by producing smaller drops and particles. We aim to demonstrate the opportunities of such a novel combination of chemistry, biology and engineering through a focussed feasibility study with two example systems. In the first system we look at the degradation of waste lignin from biorefineries and the lignin present in biomass by commonly available enzymes. Lignocellulosic biomass as exemplified by wood, straw etc. is the single biggest source of sustainable organic materials. However the lignin fraction of this biomass is resistant to all but the most aggressive of chemical treatments and, whilst enzymes are responsible for the degradation of lignin in nature, they are much too slow for commercial processes. Nevertheless, lignin is one of the few sources of aromatic compounds in renewable feedstocks, and these are important industrial products. Therefore, a commercially viable route to lignin degradation would be extremely attractive to industry. In the second system we aim to take plant oils from biorefinery feedstock and, rather than converting them all to biodiesel, our goal is to oxidise them to more valuable intermediate feedstocks, such as materials used to prepare plastics. Thus we partly replace plastics made from oil with plastics made from plants,while also generating opportunities for new industries associated with the biorefinery. For both examples the conversions will be achieved in water without the aid of any of the additional chemicals which are traditionally introduced to overcome processing problems or to condition raw materials to make them easier to work with. Therefore, the mixer will simplify the processes and reduce waste, and also decrease energy consumption through the elimination of extra processing steps associated with separation and purification. As all of these things add to the cost of producing a chemical and may produce pollution, successful integration of the chemistry, biology and engineering will yield cleaner products from renewable resources, offering potential business opportunities.

Technical Summary

This proposal addresses 'enhancing product value', while providing capability in 'integrative bioprocessing'. The Ultra Mixing and Processing Facility (UMPF) provides engineering capability to demonstrate that clean bio- and chemo-catalysis can be used, as integrated unit operations adjunct to the fuel production stream of the biorefinery, to produce high value aromatics from lignin and monomers from unsaturated oils. The examples chosen to demonstrate the valorisation of by-products of biofuel production are (a) production of monomers from oils in biphasic systems and (b) enzymatic processing of recalcitrant lignin fractions. Both examples rely directly on the use of a novel proprietary Process Intensification technology (UMPF) to overcome mass transfer limitations. Application specific knowledge is provided by University of Bath and Nottingham respectively. The UMPF has been shown in a parallel industry sectors to improve energy efficiency of distributive and dispersive mixing process to produce biphasic systems with large surface area. Scalability is built into the project, as are cleaner processing, reduced waste, energy efficiency and optimised unit operations; concepts central to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of integrated biorefining processes. The basic principles of the UMPF design are a uniform process experience to all molecules and maximisation of the specific area to increase the rate of intra and intermolecular events. We believe that these principles will lead to processes with better selectivity and enable reactions to occur with reduced or even no aids such as phase transfer catalysts, (hazardous) solvents and surfactants. Resulting sustainability gains will be assessed through the used of structured approaches such as Product-Driven Process Synthesis methodologies which are suited for developing conceptual designs and which will support more comprehensive analysis (e.g. life cycle analysis) in follow on proposals.

Planned Impact

This feasibility study is designed to illustrate the opportunities for creation of high value chemical products as an integral part of the biorefinery. Industry takeup of IBTI research is essential to ensure that the social and economic impacts of the scientific outcomes are realised. Early stage engagement of IBTI club partners will provide focus on products with clear routes to market. Liverpool University's 'Business Gateway' will assist with IP protection and exploitation. Broader dissemination with be through (a) intermediary organisation with which the researchers are involved including CIKTN, NWDA's Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry, NanoCentral, CPI etc (b) publications in high impact chemical engineering and chemistry journals (c) presentation at international conferences and (c) UMPF as an Open Access is marketed to external users and the data developed in this proposal serves as a valuable case study (once IP is protected). The resources requested here are designed to leverage existing funding opportunities to address the needs of the IBTI club members by linking two new centres, namely the Centre in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (Bath) and the Bioprocess Engineering lab (Nottingham), with a relatively new centre (UMPF, Liverpool) to build a new capability. The project team is multidisciplinary consisting of mechanical (Egan) and chemical (Kowlaski) engineers, a chemist (Scott) and a biologist (Stephens). The project structure is centred around the UMPF (Liverpool) where most of the work will take place and the proposal provides one of the CIs (Egan) with a first opportunity to play a substantial leadership role in a research project and it is envisaged that he will be the driving force for any subsequent proposal. Within UMPF the PDRA is responsible for developing the target systems into a suitable for experimentation within the UMPF facility (including safety and risk assessments, developing an understanding of the chemistries from Bath and Nottingham and ensuring measurement techniques are validated). The project team will meet quarterly including organising these meeting around the IBTI dissemination events to enable IBTI club members to critique the work and to foster their engagement. Whilst not specifically funded by this proposal it will nevertheless provide opportunities for PhD level students in the Centre for Sustainable Technology and the Bioprocess Engineering lab to become involved in industrial focussed projects and an opportunity to work with a leading edge pilot scale process facility. As this project takes, the need for cleaner conversions of renewable feedstocks to high-value chemical products, as a set of design criteria, public engagement via networks such as the Green Chemistry Network and press releases may follow. IP protection will be primarily the responsibility of Liverpool and in the first instance publication will be delayed to allow filing of any patents and to enable IBTI club member to review the opportunities for thie individual businesses as outline in the call document


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Description The mixer technology was primarily used in other industrial sectors. As a result of this grant the technology has been evaluated in a wholly new field, i.e biotechnology and catalysis.
Exploitation Route Commercial exploitation of the mixer technology. Other TSB and EU grants are being sought.
Sectors Chemicals,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Some of the data and outputs produced during this funded research were identified as being novel, unexpected and potentially commercially exploitable. The Controlled Deformation Dynamic Mixer technology (CDDM: on which some of this feasibility study was based) is now being exploited commercially by a spin out company (CDDMtec Ltd) in which the university has a stake holding. Initially patent protection will be sought before formal exploitation is carried out.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology