March 2013

Wooden Coke bottles

Non-edible biomass needs to be deployed as fully and as efficiently as possible for high-quality applications. In a nutshell, this is what the partnership between ECN and the chemical research company Avantium is all about. The organosolv process developed by ECN uses organic solvents to produce cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin from second generation biomass such as wood chips and straw. It supplies semi-processed products for Avantium’s YXY process, which converts sugars into raw materials for plastics. These plastics are of such quality that soda giant Coca Cola is interested in Avantium’s PEF bottles: plastic bottles produced entirely from biological components.

Wouter Huijgen (left, ECN) and Jan Kees van der Waal (right, Avantium): making use of second
generation biomass (Photo: Willy Slingerland)

Jan Kees van der Waal, Principal Catalysis Scientist at Avantium:

‘Avantium is a chemical research company that converts sugars from biomass into useful products. Our YXY process allows us to effectively produce furans from first generation biomass such as sugar beet or sugar cane. But we prefer to use second generation biomass. We knew that ECN’s organosolv process enables the extraction of pure sugar and lignin from for example wood or straw. That is very interesting for us as there are currently no commercially available methods that can do the same.

Our partnership started four years ago in the CatFur project. In this project we examined how we could integrate the organosolv process of ECN with our YXY process. The benefits of integrating these processes include not having to let the sugars cool off,  no need to remove solvents, nor are packaging and transportation by truck needed; instead the sugars can proceed to catalytic processing in one single process step. This has enabled us to take some significant steps forward.

In the recently started YXY fuels project, we are now working on developing a complete biorefining process based on waste flows from, for example, the paper industry. The paper industry currently only uses one third of a tree; the cellulose. The lignin is mainly used for combustion. We are working on developing a process in which all components of a tree can be utilised in a highly advanced manner. The cellulose is used for making plastics; the hemicellulose  is turned into semi-processed products via chemical processes; and the lignin is used as basis for new biofuels.

ECN is a good partner for us as it takes extensive knowledge to extract useful substances from second generation biomass. We are collaborating with ECN in multiple projects. ECN has a non-university approach and is getting close to what trade and industry need.’

Wouter Huijgen, Research Scientist Biomass & Energy Efficiency at ECN:

‘Avantium is an interesting partner for us. The company is currently marketing its YXY technology. The technology is promising and a logical successor of our organosolv process. In the new, joint YXY fuels project, which is part of the TKI for BioBased Economy, we are working on further harmonising our processes and on scaling them up. For the latter goal, we are building a larger organosolv installation at ECN this year. The product of this installation will be used by Avantium as input for its pilot plant at the Chemelot site in Geleen.

We meet at least once per quarter to discuss the progress and to establish the next steps. We also make good use of each other’s facilities and expertise. We frequently send samples back and forth to take a closer look at them with specific ECN or Avantium analysis techniques. In the CatFur project, ECN was able to produce compounds that we had not produced before: a reaction product of sugars with our ethanol solvent. Avantium taught us how to analyse these reaction products.

The collaboration is going well. Our specific kinds of expertise are particularly well-aligned to each other.  ECN considers the PEF plastics to be an interesting application for our biorefining processes in which we aim to better utilise second generation biomass. We are deliberately opting for this type of woody biomass. Not only does it not compete with food supply and is it more sustainable than the first generation of biomass; it is also available in larger volumes. If we succeed in developing our combined technologies into a complete biorefining line, this partnership will deliver a sustainable treatment process with a huge potential.’

Organosolv: Value from waste

Plastics for coke bottles is but one of the many products that can be made with the Organosolv process. Organosolv is being developed to convert woody biomass and agricultural residue into three different fractions, which, in turn, can be converted into commercial products. One of these fractions is cellulose, which can for example be converted into bio-ethanol, a car fuel.  Another fraction is lignin, a bio-polymer that has many applications. ECN collaborates with businesses who are interested in increasing the value of their waste flow. Moreover, ECN has valuable expertise for businesses that want to use bio-feedstocks in their product.

Click here to read a description of ECN’s organosolv process.

Would you like to find out more? Ruud van den Brink will gladly inform you on the possibilities of the organosolv-proces. Call him at 00 31- (0)88 515 4188.