Forty percent of all raw materials in the chemical industry are based on aromatics, which have so far been extracted from petroleum. Commercial production of biobased aromatics would be a major breakthrough. Biorizon has managed to produce biobased aromatics on ‘laboratory scale’, and this is now being scaled up.
The Biorizon shared research centre is a joint project of TNO, VITO and the Green Chemistry Campus. Biorizon’s aim is to make commercial production of biobased aromatics possible for Biorizon’s industrial partners by 2020. The importance of this can scarcely be overestimated, as aromatics are one of the main raw materials for the chemical industry. But that has its flip side. Using aromatics makes for high dependence on petroleum, and they moreover contribute to the CO2 problem. Biorizon is developing methods for obtaining aromatics from plant material or residues. That’s easier said than done, however. There is a good deal of literature on how to convert biomass into aromatics, but getting this technology to work on a large scale economically is difficult. So far the cost has proved very high. Producing large quantities of aromatics continuously is also problematic.
Step by step
TNO’s Joop Groen says: ‘At Biorizon we’re working to achieve the ultimate aim, a commercially economic method of producing biobased aromatics by 2020.’ The Biorizon OP South Project (OP = Operational Programme), with a budget of 2.5 million euros, was launched in November 2013. It enjoys financial support from the Province of North Brabant, TNO, VITO, Rewin, Sabic and the ERDF. ‘We selected a number of production routes based on the literature and patent analyses’, Groen explains. ‘Sugars can be converted into furans on laboratory scale, and from these we can make aromatics. We’re now scaling this up to bench scale. That system will be capable of producing one to ten litres of biobased aromatics per hour, a lot more than you can produce in a lab setting. And it’s a flow process, i.e. continuous production. That’s important for future commercial production. The next step after bench scale is a pilot plant. Then can we move on to demo scale and bring commercial production in sight.’
Cutting the cost
An important point when it comes to producing biobased aromatics is cutting the cost. The crucial separation process is still expensive, for example. Groen goes on: ‘That’s why we’re happy we’ve successfully tested a promising new membrane separation technology. That was particularly down to our Flemish partner, VITO. That technology can cut the cost considerably.’ VITO is also looking into a better way of converting lignin (a wood material found in cell walls) into biobased aromatics. Most biomass contains one third lignin. A further significant cost saving has been achieved in the OP South Project by means of ‘telescoping’ (process integration). Groen: ‘Perfecting the technology is one thing, but if the cost stays high you can be sure that commercial applications won’t get off the ground.’Also worth mentioning is the collaboration with Wageningen University, which has substantial expertise in the area of biobased aromatics. So joining forces in this wasy is good for Biorizon.
Biorizon aims to be one of the top five biobased aromatics research programmes in the world within five years. The results of the project are bringing that goal closer. As Groen points out, ‘What we’ve achieved in this project is fairly unique in the world. I haven’t really found anything that even comes close in the literature.’ This achievement is also being recognized in the world of biobased aromatics, with Biorizon regularly invited to attend conferences. He will be addressing conferences in the autumn and will attend the conference on The Future Of Aromatics in Amsterdam in January 2015. Groen concludes: ‘Now we want to build a community for everyone involved in biobased aromatics throughout the world. Sharing knowledge, joining forces so as to make more progress, that’s very important at this stage. 2020 is just round the corner.