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Iowa State researchers developing low-cost thermochemical process to produce sugars from biomass for bio-fuels and -chemicals; “pyrolytic molasses”

Iowa State University (ISU) researchers have developed technologies to efficiently produce, recover and separate sugars from the fast pyrolysis of biomass. Fast pyrolysis involves quickly heating the biomass without oxygen to produce liquid or gas products.

ISU’s Robert C. Brown calls the result of the process “pyrolytic molasses.” Low-cost sugars from biomass are a key enabler for many production pathways for bio-based fuels and chemicals. (Earlier post.)

The Department of Energy has been working for 35 years to get sugar out of biomass. Most of the focus has been on use of enzymes, which remains extremely expensive. What we’ve developed is a simpler method based on the heating of biomass.

—Robert Brown

Brown and Iowa State researchers are presenting present their ideas and findings during tcbiomass2011, the International Conference on Thermochemical Conversion Science in Chicago. Brown is delivering a plenary talk there today describing how large amounts of sugars can be produced from biomass by a simple pretreatment before pyrolysis. He is also explaining how these sugars can be economically recovered from the products of pyrolysis.

A poster session following Brown’s talk will highlight thermochemical technologies developed by 19 Iowa State research teams, including processes that:

  • increase the yield of sugar from fast pyrolysis of biomass with a pretreatment that neutralizes naturally occurring alkali that otherwise interferes with the release of sugars;

  • prevent burning of sugar released during pyrolysis by rapidly transporting it out of the hot reaction zone;

  • recover sugar from the heavy end of bio-oil that has been separated into various fractions; and

  • separate sugars from the heavy fractions of bio-oil using a simple water-washing process.

In addition to Brown, key contributors to the pyrolysis research at Iowa State include Brent Shanks, the Mike and Jean Steffenson Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals based at Iowa State; Christopher Williams, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering; Zhiyou Wen, associate professor of food science and human nutrition; Laura Jarboe, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering; Xianglan Bai, adjunct assistant professor of aerospace engineering; Marjorie Rover and Sunitha Sadula, research scientists at the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies; Dustin Dalluge, a graduate student in mechanical engineering; and Najeeb Kuzhiyil, a former doctoral student who is now working for GE Transportation in Erie, Penn.

Their work has been supported by the eight-year, $22.5-million ConocoPhillips Biofuels Program at Iowa State, launched in April 2007.



A tech announcement should have numbers.

"low cost" means what percent of "present cost", %efficiency, other pluses..?


This would be an alternative process to the supercritical acid hydrolysis schemes. Of course, it may be that neither one of them works commercially.

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