From atoms to plant: co-production of green transport fuel and levoglucosan from waste biomass

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


Converting biomass waste to bio-products will simultaneously provide a route to waste-disposal, and a process for the production of useful, economically attractive products. Within all the products derived from biomass waste, liquid hydrocarbon transport fuels are promising for the UK to meet its 2020 renewable energy target of providing 10% of its transport fuel from renewable sources. They will help to tackle the challenges of climate change and the ever-increasing fuel demand.

The current waste-to-liquid technologies, however, are facing main problems of high production cost and technical uncertainty. To address these problems, we will develop a breakthrough technology in this project. This novel technology will co-produce liquid transport bio-fuel and one value-added bio-chemical. By doing this, high economic profits will be expected when comparing with conventional liquid bio-fuel plants. The co-production system will additionally benefit to the reduction of the biofuel's high oxygen content, which is known as the main source that leads to poor stability, immiscibility and low calorific value of the produced fuel.

The integrated production system will be designed and evaluated within this project, with the involvement of three universities (Queen's University Belfast-QUB, Aston University-AU, and North China Electric Power University-NCEPU), three academics, one PDRA, and two PhDs (one is funded by QUB, the other is funded by NCEPU). The project is also highly industrial geared by directly involvement of two UK-based companies: Hirwaun Energy Ltd, who will provide a pilot scale biomass pyrolysis reactor for results validation, and Green Lizard Technologies Ltd, who will provide suggestions on the technology scale-up.

Through the development of this innovative technology, high national impact will be realised to achieve the UK's 2020 Renewable Energy targets through the conversion of over 16 million tonnes per year of the UK's lignocellulosic biomass into advanced fuel together with value-added co-products. It will also have a positive impact on the UK's target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and increasing the use of renewable materials.

Planned Impact

The proposed research will have a positive impact on the environment, economy, society, translation of knowledge and personal development.

Engagement with industry during and after this project will be the key to deliver economic impact and eventually get products to market that will generate profit within the UK. The proposed technology has the potential to convert the annual 16 million tonnes of lignocellulosic biomass in the UK into 15-20 Petajoules (PJ) of advanced transport fuel together with 5-8PJ of levoglucosan. This means not only green energy supply but also a constant drive for improved financial profit. Indeed, the co-production of levoglucosan (valued at 10 times more than that of transport bio-fuel) will create major economic savings. This has attracted the interests of many UK-based bioenergy companies: Hirwaun Energy Ltd has confirmed to support this project, by cash/in-kind contribution totalling £32k, recognising the potential benefits to their bio-fuel plants; Green Lizard Technologies shows high interests on scale-up of the proposed technology and has confirmed their involvement with in-kind contribution of £5k. The project will also reduce the time to practical application of lignocellulosic for fuel production in an industrial context, i.e., an optimistic estimate that the first plant will be in place within 5 to 10 years.

The project will have both short-term (1-5 years) and long-term (5-20 years) impact on society. In the short term, it will catalyse industrial-academic partnerships to develop a large network in relevant areas, to translate the proposed concept into practice. Long-term societal impact will be realised by the application of the proposed technology. For example, 20-100 job opportunities will be created by building one co-production plant in the UK, and in total 20-50 plants could be built within the UK to convert the 16 million tonnes of lignocellulosic feedstock. Additionally, the environmental benefits will be realised reducing the GHG emissions by 80% when utilising sustainable biomass rather than fossil fuel.

As the project progresses, the appropriate exploitation of the results and the associated publications and potential patents will lead to impact in wide global academic sectors, especially in the UK, China, the US and Republic Ireland due to the direct/indirect involvement of the research teams. This will be realised by scientific publications, international conferences, and bioenergy network (i.e., SUPERGEN Bioenergy). The proposed atom-to-market simulation approach will contribute significantly to academia: it has the potential to replace current single-point investigation approaches and change the paradigm of renewable energy systems.

The research data generated will be shared with the general public via multiple pathways, i.e., i) organising a project workshop for the research communities; ii) delivering a public talk at "Soapbox Science 2018" for wider public audience; and iii) creating multi-media materials for general public. The material will be shared on the website of the host institute, "Soapbox Science" website and public sharing sites (e.g. YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter etc).

The project will have positive impacts in skills development and people pipeline for the project team. The PI will directly benefit by expanding her research horizon and ambitions. The PDRA, QUB-based PhD student, and NCEPU-based PhD student, will benefit from increased exposure to the cutting-edge technology of this project, and from potential training opportunities that will be practiced. Additionally, the 8 final year students, the industrial PhD student Mr Sheehan, and undergraduate students at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, QUB, will benefit by spreading the project findings via interacting with the PI's current activities, i.e., Final Year projects, Knowledge Transfer Programme, and undergraduate teaching, respectively.


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