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MACC researchers design advanced system to reduce biofuel processing costs

MACC researchers have developed a new chemical process system that will make it less expensive to produce biobutanol—a biofuel that may play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions by blending into ordinary gasoline along with or instead of bioethanol. For the past few years, MACC researchers have been developing a new process that can produce biobutanol using something called the thermochemical route. “The thermochemical route is different from most other biobutanol processing strategies because it doesn’t use a biological process (such as fermentation using bacteria) to break down biomass into chemicals,” says Chinedu Okoli, PhD candidate and lead author on the study. Instead, the process developed by Okoli and Prof. Thomas A. Adams II uses a high temperature process called gasification to break down biomass such as forestry wastes into high energy gases. The gases are then converted to biobutanol using a catalyst in a reactor.

However, like most biofuel processes, the desired product (butanol) is created along with several other chemicals in the reaction mixture. The challenge is to recover the butanol by separating the liquid mixture into its component parts. Okoli and Adams have designed a process using an advanced distillation technique known as dividing wall column distillation. Although over 100 dividing wall columns have been constructed worldwide, the design proposed by the MACC team uses the Kaibel configuration, which allows for the separation of four chemicals with just one column. “Only one column of this type has ever been constructed before,” says Okoli. “Our design is the first to be used for biobutanol.” Using computer simulations, the researchers calculated that their design should reduce the costs of purifying biobutanol by 28%, arising both from the reduced amount of equipment required, and a 31% savings in energy consumption. This should help pave the way for biobutanol to be commercialized throughout the world.

The research paper entitled “Design of dividing wall columns for butanol recovery in a thermochemical biomass to butanol process” will be published in the journal Chemical Engineering & Processing: Process Intensification. An early edition, open-access copy of the paper can be downloaded from our website.

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