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AVA Biochem begins commercial-scale production of 5-HMF from biomass using HTC

AVA Biochem in Muttenz (Switzerland) has begun commercial-scale production of 5-(hydroxymethyl)furfural (5-MHF) from biomass at its Biochem-1 facility using a modified version of a hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) process developed by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). 5-HMF is a platform chemical that can serve as a precursor for various fuels and plastics. (Earlier post.)

In the first phase, AVA Biochem will produce up to 20 tonnes of biomass-derived 5-HMF per year. Various levels of purity—up to 99.9%—are now available for delivery.

5-HMF is an organic compound derived from dehydration of certain sugars (hexoses). This yellow, low-melting solid is highly water-soluble. The molecule consists of a furan ring, containing both aldehyde and alcohol functional groups. 5-HMF can be obtained from vegetable biomass; according to the US Department of Energy, 5-HMF is one of the ten most important platform chemicals. It is, however, a challenge to manufacture the compound on an industrial scale.

The researchers at KIT developed a 5-(hydroxymethyl)furfural laboratory production technique that can be implemented industrially. The hydrothermal carbonization process, also described as “aqueous carbonization”, uses temperatures of 220 °Celsius and pressure levels of 22 bar to dehydrate the carbohydrates. In other words, says AVA Biochem, the process leads to a “dewatering” which needs less energy compared to conventional thermal drying.

Friederich Bergius first described HTC in 1913, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1931. KIT and AVA-CO2, the holding company of AVA Biochem, have been researching HTC for industrial application for the production of biocoal since 2010.

The hydrothermal methods can be well integrated in different process chains for which biomass is used as raw material. On the one hand, biomass with a high water content which, for example, is a by-product of food production, serves as raw material. On the other hand, hydrothermal procedures can be combined very well with biotechnological methods.

—Professor Jörg Sauer, head of KIT’s Institute of Catalysis Research and Technology (IKFT)

In parallel with the lab work, engineers from AVA Biochem and the KIT researchers began work on upscaling to the production scale. Now, in parallel to current production at Biochem-1, the teams at KIT and AVA Biochem are now optimizing the method and preparing it for further applications. Both the spectrum of usable biomasses and the achievable yields have much development potential and open up additional opportunities, the partners said. A joint patent was taken out on the developed method.

The objective of AVA Biochem is to become the market leader in 5-HMF production through application of the innovative production process.


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