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University of Wisconsin seeking commercial partners for alkylphenol solvent-based method to convert biomass into furan derivatives for fuels and chemicals

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) is seeking commercial partners for a novel, cost-effective method developed by University of Wisconsin, Madison researchers for producing furan derivatives such as hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), furfural, levulinic acid (LA) or γ-valerolactone (GVL) from biomass using alkylphenols as solvents. Such biomass-derived furan derivatives may substitute for petroleum-based building blocks used to produce transportation fuels, plastics and fine chemicals. (Earlier post.)

As an example, levulinic acid, which has been identified as a top biomass-derived chemical due to its ease of production for both five and six carbon sugars and its useful functional groups, a ketone and a carboxylic acid, can be produced from HMF or furfural. Levulinic acid is a platform chemical for forming other, more valuable reactive chemicals including methyl vinyl ketone, olefins and n-butenes. However, currently it is more expensive to create commercially desirable products from biomass than petroleum feedstocks.

The new acid-catalyzed process for converting biomass into furan derivatives uses a biphasic reactor containing a reactive aqueous phase and an organic extracting phase, which includes an alkylphenol. Alkylphenols are chemically distinct from previously reported extracting solvents. They offer efficient extraction of furan derivatives like levulinic acid and unique options for recovery and processing.

For example, the researchers found that no butylphenol is transferred into the aqueous phase, minimizing solvent loss and contamination of the aqueous stream. Additionally, alkylphenols are inert under conditions relevant to levulinic acid processing, including distillation and selective hydrogenation in the presence of butylphenol to yield gamma-valerolactone.

Claimed advantages of the process include:

  • Provides a cost-effective route for making valuable chemical intermediates from biomass Furan derivatives do not need to be purified, reducing costs.

  • All or a portion of the final products may be recycled for further use as an extracting phase.

  • Alkylphenols allow catalytic conversion of intermediates without purification.

  • Alkylphenol solvents do not extract water or acids, enabling sustainable recovery of water and the acid catalyst for further biomass deconstruction.

  • Water does not need to be separated from the reaction products by evaporation at any stage, reducing energy demands.

  • Alkylphenols to separate levulinic acid from sulfuric acid solutions with high selectivity.

In a new paper in the journal ChemSusChem, UW Madison researchers, led by Dr. James Dumesic, report that alkylphenol solvents allow a more effective production of biofuels from corn stover by enabling selective extraction and hydrogenation of levulinic acid to GVL, and by increasing the final concentration of GVL through successive extraction/hydrogenation steps. In their paper, the team concludes that the versatility of alkylphenol solvents may lead to their use in other biomass conversion processes utilizing mineral acids for biomass deconstruction.


  • Alonso, D. M., Wettstein, S. G., Bond, J. Q., Root, T. W. and Dumesic, J. A. (2011) Production of Biofuels from Cellulose and Corn Stover Using Alkylphenol Solvents. ChemSusChem, 4: 1078–1081. doi: 10.1002/cssc.201100256


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