Researchers study how to replace petroleum with plant-derived sugar
Seattle Times business reporter
As an energy source, fermented sugar is amazingly versatile: one form can liven up a party, another can propel a car.
It might also form the basis for making disposable diapers, antifreeze and plastic pop bottles.
In a drive for renewable, cost-effective technology, Northwest researchers are taking green chemistry into the future by studying how to replace petroleum in hundreds of everyday products with plant-derived sugar.
The idea is to use plant materials not only to create alternative fuels, but also to make a wide range of chemicals that are now produced using petroleum.
The chemicals are valuable in a variety of industries because they form the building blocks of commercial products, from paints and plastics to cosmetics and clothing.
"We take the biorefinery concept and say we're going to make fuels out of this, but what else can we make to take the most advantage of the material?" said Rick Orth, senior engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
Washington State University and the Richland laboratory, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), are collaborating on some of the research, hoping to find new energy solutions by tapping into local resources such as forestry and agriculture.
The partnership is expanding this year with a $24 million Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory scheduled to open in the fall on WSU's Tri-Cities campus. There, the national scientists will work more closely with WSU researchers.
Besides classrooms and offices, the new building will include a 2,500-square-foot "biorefinery" to test manufacturing processes, high-pressure catalytic reactor rooms and labs for developing and engineering fungal fermentations.
Many energy efforts in the U.S. are aimed at developing alternative fuels, with an emphasis on growing corn for ethanol. Since most corn is grown in the Midwest, that doesn't fit Washington state.
The local researchers decided to focus on the Northwest's own abundant biomass, a term that refers to plant matter and various kinds of waste including wood pulp, leaves, wheat straw and livestock waste.
The raw materials can be converted to starch, cellulose and glucose. Waste-plant materials are a better source for fuel than crops that could be grown for food, but breaking them down is more difficult.
The labs are working on ways to do that more efficiently. WSU is working with a wheat breeder in Idaho to develop wheat straw that breaks down more readily, for example.
The next step is transforming the sugars into chemicals such as levulinic acid, lactic acid and sorbitol, which can be processed further and used to create fuels or sold to manufacturers for making common products.
The acrylics used in superabsorbent disposable diapers, for example, are petroleum-based and that industry in North America uses about 4 billion pounds of acrylics every year.
"Look around your house. Everything that is not a metal- or rock-based material probably could be made from biomass," said Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean of research in the College of Agriculture at Washington State University. "Read the label on the clothes — if it doesn't say cotton or wool, there's a good chance it comes out of a barrel of oil.
"So much of what we have in our life nowadays is a synthetic manufactured material. So whether it's the cloth on the sofa or carpet or the rug or Tupperware, the list is almost endless."
He envisions "truckloads of biomass go in one end, and out will come electricity, industrial chemicals and certainly fuel."
The approach serves both an environmental and an economic purpose. Plant materials could help cut at least some dependence on fossil fuels. "The biggest benefit of renewables is that you can plant them every year as opposed to taking oil out of the ground," said Orth, of the Richland laboratory. "Once you use that, it's gone."
And the work aims to address the double challenge of energy security and climate change, said Mike Davis, associate lab director in the Energy, Science and Technology division at the Richland facility.
"By mining ancient carbon and running it through our engines, we're increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which most climate scientists say is a driver behind global warming."
But it's a complicated equation.
To have a substantial impact on the region, Davis said, biomass resources would have to replace 20 to 30 percent of fossil fuels used, mostly in the form of imported oil. That's a moving target.
"Even though we keep getting more efficient, we keep driving more miles and buying more cars," Davis said. "We're driving so many more miles that energy consumption and emissions are increasing."
Most petroleum today goes toward electricity and fuels, with only about 10 percent used for chemical products. But that is where the majority of the profit can be made.
"The petroleum industry figured this out a long time ago. Plastics, industrial chemicals — that's the profit margin," said Cavalieri of WSU. "Fuel is a globally traded commodity. Let's let the fuel be the least-valuable thing we produce, and work on higher-value products."
Chemical products sold at higher margins can help offset the cost of making lower-margin alternative fuels, creating more incentive for producers.
Biodiesel, for example, sells for about $3 a gallon. The same material can be used as a high-quality solvent that sells for about $12 per gallon, Cavalieri said.
As promising as the technology is, Cavalieri says it's still just "low-hanging fruit." He wants to accelerate the pace of development and hopes the state will dedicate more funding for biomass research, which is less than $10 million.
WSU also gets funding from a famous student, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, through his Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
If its research proves commercially successful, it could be another engine in the region's economy. The Richland laboratory is already providing chemical-conversion technologies for a number of companies.
"Think about the billions of dollars we're sending overseas to buy oil," Davis said. "We could take some fraction of that and reinvest into our state so our farmers or foresters or others will get some income from the production of biomass.
"Basically we're going to be creating a new sector of our economy that will capture some of the money that would be going overseas to buy oil, and keeping it in our economy."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published April 2, was later corrected. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is in Richmond. The laboratory is in Richland.
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