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Environmentally friendly, lower-cost alternative fuels, solvents, plastics are on the horizon

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory : 29 June, 2000  (Technical Article)
Alternative fuels may be one step closer to popular use thanks to the combination of two new technologies. This marriage of technologies is expected to have such a positive impact on the environment that it has just earned one of four Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards,
The award recognizes the use of biomass or waste plant matter to produce useful chemicals, in this case levulinic acid and its derivatives. Biofine, a small Massachusetts company, has developed an economical method of turning paper mill waste into levulinic acid, an important, multipurpose chemical. With the Biofine process, virtually any biomass waste products can be used to create the acid for as little as one-tenth the cost of current manufacturing processes.

As much as one ton per day of levulinic acid, a multipurpose chemical created from paper mill sludge, is being produced at a demonstration plant in New York. Pacific Northwest researchers have developed a process to turn levulinic acid into products such as MTHF, an alternative automotive fuel component.

Those cost savings are key to using a second process that creates, from levulinic acid, an important component for use in alternative fuels. The Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has developed the first ever multi-step, catalytic process to convert levulinic acid to useful products, including an alternative fuel component called methyltetrahydrofuran or MTHF. MTHF can be used with ethanol and natural gas liquids to create a cleaner burning fuel for cars and trucks that produces less air pollution than petroleum-based gasoline.

'Our system incorporates multiple chemical reaction steps into one process and creates higher yields than previously available,' said Doug Elliott of Pacific Northwest's chemical process development group. The catalytic process produces about 110 gallons of alternative fuel component for every 100 gallons of levulinic acid.

The patented process is conducted at elevated temperatures and pressures inside a continuous flow reactor. The levulinic acid is mixed with hydrogen. Then both compounds are pumped through a reactor filled with a catalyst where a series of chemical reactions occur at about 240 degrees Celsius (464 degrees Fahrenheit) and 100 atmospheres of pressure to create MTHF. Support for the Pacific Northwest research came from the DOE's Office of Industrial Technologies.

'This is an exciting technology emerging from DOE's investments in biomass conversion, a field where we are literally just touching the surface of the potential for using low-value and waste biomass material for valuable products,' said Dennis Stiles, manager of Agriculture and Food Processing Technology programs at Pacific Northwest. 'In the near future, the technology will be expanded to produce levulinic acid from other organic wastes, such as straw, as well as producing a variety of other chemical products, such as solvents, herbicides and plastics, in addition to MTHF.'

Pacific Northwest has partnered with Biofine, which has a pilot-scale levulinic conversion facility in South Glens Falls, N.Y. The levulinic acid production technology is ready for commercialization and an industry search currently is in progress to site a manufacturing plant in a major pulp and paper-producing region. Scaled-up demonstration of the MTHF production process is planned for the near future. The planned commercial plant would use paper mill waste products to produce levulinic acid and would upgrade the material to MTHF to sell as a solvent initially. A benefit for the pulp and paper industry would be a reduction in the cost of managing the waste sludge which is dried and composted or transported to landfills, or spread on land.
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