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Home » California, Energy, Federal Agency, New Mexico, Process, R & D Focus

Scientists Harness CO2 to Consolidate Biofuel Production Process

Submitted by on July 21, 2016 – 5:26 pmNo Comment

by Sarah Yang (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)  Carbon dioxide has emerged as a new secret ingredient in the recipe for making ethanol, and that addition represents a major step forward in streamlining the biofuel production process.

The innovation comes from researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) working at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI). The scientists have demonstrated that adding carbon dioxide (CO2) gas during the deconstruction phase of biofuel production successfully neutralized the toxicity of ionic liquids, the room-temperature molten salt solvent used at JBEI to break down cellulosic plant material. Moreover, the process is easily reversible, allowing the liquid to be recycled for use as a solvent again.

Using carbon dioxide as a reversible method of controlling pH eliminates the need for separation and purification of the liquid after biomass pretreatment and before two other major steps used in biofuel production – saccharification and fermentation.

The study, published online this month in the journal Energy and Environmental Sciences, addresses a significant obstacle to expanding the market for biofuels: lowering the cost of production.

According to a preliminary economic analysis reported in the study, a CO2-enhanced process could lower production costs by 50 to 65 percent compared with conventional ionic liquid-based pretreatment methods.

The study authors pointed out that microbes generate carbon dioxide as a byproduct of fermentation, so harnessing that gas for use in the pretreatment phase leads to an even greener source of energy.

“Incorporating gaseous CO2 in this process means there’s no need for a neutralization step, and the pH can be switched on a dime by the addition or release of CO2,” said Simmons, who is also the Berkeley Lab division director for Biological Systems and Engineering in the Biosciences Area. “When the pH adjustment is reversible, it makes the overall process more efficient because you can repeat the pretreatment cycle several times. And it costs less because now you can do everything in one reactor instead of three.”

Applying up to 145 pounds per square inch of carbon dioxide to the system shifted the pH to a range that was optimal for the enzymes and microbes. This enabled the researchers to get more than 83 percent of the theoretical yield of ethanol from the glucose initially present in biomass. READ MORE  Abstract (Energy and Environmental Sciences)

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