Biorefineries take as their feedstock materials from sustainable sources and ideally from non-food competitive sources. These materials are converted into valuable materials which may be used directly in products such as emollients for skin care creams or flavour and fragrances. Alternatively they may in turn be a raw material for a subsequent process which produces more complex products such as a monomer used for production of polyurethanes. However the existing process technologies have been designed for petrochemical based feedstocks. Such processes and the associated equipment have been refined over decades to be optimal for these chemistries and materials. Even when new technologies become available the cost of scrapping old process facilities and replacing them with new equipment may make it economically unattractive. Since the biorefinery industry is still developing there is a significant opportunity to introduce new and innovative processes and process equipment before long term capital investments are irrevocably made. The project seeks to evaluate one such extremely novel proprietary mixing technology which is already producing technology patents in adjacent industry sectors but has not to date been considered in biorefining. Many operations in biorefineries involve using water-insoluble materials. This means that there are solid particles (eg plant material) or droplets of liquids (eg oil) in the reaction mixture. Problems arise because the catalysts or reagents needed to convert the insoluble materials to products have to be dissolved in the water. Therefore, the reactions have to take place at the interface between the solid or oil and the water. In such reactions the intimate mixing of the feedstock and the catalysts is crucial to rapid conversion. We have developed a new type of mixing process that can vastly increase the surface area of the feedstock by producing smaller drops and particles. We aim to demonstrate the opportunities of such a novel combination of chemistry, biology and engineering through a focussed feasibility study with two example systems. In the first system we look at the degradation of waste lignin from biorefineries and the lignin present in biomass by commonly available enzymes. Lignocellulosic biomass as exemplified by wood, straw etc. is the single biggest source of sustainable organic materials. However the lignin fraction of this biomass is resistant to all but the most aggressive of chemical treatments and, whilst enzymes are responsible for the degradation of lignin in nature, they are much too slow for commercial processes. Nevertheless, lignin is one of the few sources of aromatic compounds in renewable feedstocks, and these are important industrial products. Therefore, a commercially viable route to lignin degradation would be extremely attractive to industry. In the second system we aim to take plant oils from biorefinery feedstock and, rather than converting them all to biodiesel, our goal is to oxidise them to more valuable intermediate feedstocks, such as materials used to prepare plastics. Thus we partly replace plastics made from oil with plastics made from plants,while also generating opportunities for new industries associated with the biorefinery. For both examples the conversions will be achieved in water without the aid of any of the additional chemicals which are traditionally introduced to overcome processing problems or to condition raw materials to make them easier to work with. Therefore, the mixer will simplify the processes and reduce waste, and also decrease energy consumption through the elimination of extra processing steps associated with separation and purification. As all of these things add to the cost of producing a chemical and may produce pollution, successful integration of the chemistry, biology and engineering will yield cleaner products from renewable resources, offering potential business opportunities.
|Effective start/end date||14/02/11 → 13/02/12|