Biomass to fuels and chemicals
To reach the 2050 Paris agreement climate goals, biomass is expected to contribute 25-40% percent of the energy mix in various scenario studies. Thus, technologies to enable the use of sustainably produced and sourced biomass in accelerating the transition to a circular sustainable society need to be developed. Biomass is a readily available carbon source which can be converted to energy vectors, materials and chemicals.
In close cooperation with industry and other knowledge institutions, TNO develops the advanced uses of biomass, innovative processing, technical applications and supports market implementation in order to maximize the valorization of bio-feedstocks. With cascading and biorefinery concepts as guiding principles, technology development is geared towards smart combinations of biochemicals and -materials, biofuels and bioenergy to make optimal use of the “molecular capital” in the biomass and maximize added value.
TNO’s Biomass expertise group has a long proven track record developing industry inspired technologies for biomass. TNO has the expertise, the know-how, the experience and the experimental infrastructure to accelerate your sustainable biomass conversion vision.
Most organic residues are typically seen as difficult feedstocks in energy generating processes due to e.g. high ash and salt content, high water content and low energy- and/or bulk densities. TNO’s most extensive knowledge on torrefaction, TORWASH® and Enerchar (co-production of bio-energy and Biochar) help to alleviate these difficulties by facilitating the associated downstream processes and bringing residues into use.
The upgrading process of choice very much depends on the feedstock characteristics as well as the aimed use. However, the sheer range of residues asks for creative solutions beyond the known processes, and extensive experience on bio-residues in R&D as well as industrial and agricultural settings is an important asset for facing the challenges that industry calls upon.
Enerchar is a low-temperature gasification process in combination with a method to prevent tars from condensing on the biochar product. Whereas the Torwash® process aims to wash out nutrient salts and other ash elements and recover the solid as a high quality bioenergy carrier, the Enerchar co-production process maintains the nutrients in the biochar solid and uses the combustible gas for fuels, energy and/or chemicals generation.
The tar-free, highly porous biochar is suitable for use in agriculture/horticulture (e.g. as a peat replacement in potting soil or as a soil amendment), as a sorbent for undesirable compounds (heavy metals, tars, pesticides) and as a low-volatile bio- carbon in industrial processes that require a reducing agent (e.g. steel production).
The process is optimised to produce substantially more energy than required for the biochar production. For the first commercial applications, the combustible gas produced can be combusted with air to produce electricity and heat in a conventional manner (also burning all the tars in the gas). In the longer term outlook, the gas could be treated to produce more advanced compounds via downstream processing in a similar fashion as described below under Gasification.
Replacing coal with biomass requires significant changes in the operation of existing (coal) combustion installations as it brings a large number of processing challenges to cope with. Moreover, dedicated, stand-alone biomass installations are facing challenges, due to fast- changing emission regulations and a broadening portfolio of biomass and waste feedstocks available on the market.
TNO has unique expertise and research infrastructure for supporting industry in facing these challenges. TNO owns and operates a variety of combustion test facilities, suitable for the simulation of nearly all state-of-the-art biomass combustion processes.
TNO offers R&D support for the generation of heat and power from 100% biomass and for biomass co-firing. An advanced portfolio of sampling and analytical facilities, in combination with the combustion test facilities, enables widely-scoped and in-depth analyses of combustion-related problems. In addition, the development of the energy island (central steam and power supply) in biobased and biorefinery processes is a major R&D topic.
Main R&D topics:
- Stand-alone biomass boilers
- Development of the energy island in bio-based/biorefinery processes
- 2nd life of coal-fired power plants
- R&D services to support market implementation
Biomass gasification is a versatile technique, that offers great potential for applications where sustainable carbon-based molecules are needed, such as high temperature heat, fuels and chemicals. The expert group on biomass gasification has developed several technologies for the conversion of biomass (MILENA), cleaning of the product gas (OLGA) and co-production of chemicals (DEA & AREA). These technologies are the basis for our current R&D portfolio which focusses to a large extent on the development of advanced biofuel routes (Fischer- Tropsch, Methanol, etc.). Co-producing chemicals (BTX, ethylene) is part of this development, as it helps to improve the overall efficiency and business cases. A second important development is using gasification technology for the recycling of waste plastics. By applying a mild cracking environment, the plastics can be efficiently broken down to their respective building blocks.
- The indirect gasifier, MILENA, is flexible towards feedstocks and because of its broad operating temperature range can be tuned to optimize operability, efficiency and product gas composition.
- The TNO laboratory for gasification-based biofuels production contains a large selection of gas cleaning and upgrading equipment. Removal of dust, tar, sulphur, nitrogen, chlorine and carbon dioxide is no problem and varying qualities of product gas can be obtained. The lab is equipped with numerous possibilities for the catalytic conversion of the syngas to, g., i) Green Gas quality, ii) Methanol and higher alcohols or iii) FT using either fixed or slurry bed high-pressure reactors.
- The lab activities are supported with a broad range of analytical techniques, for feedstock characterization, product gas analysis, impurities identification, ash composition, etcetera.
- The lab is also equipped with supporting facilities, such as distillation towers, pressurized wax upgrading system, high-pressure catalyst screening unit, gas bottling system and feedstock preparation
TNO develops sustainable, environmentally and economically viable biorefinery concepts. We focus on three different feedstock specific technology lines by employing cascading biomass valorization principles.
The FABIOLA™ modified Organosolv process
The patented FABIOLA™ process fractionates lignocellulosic biomass into hydrolysable or formable cellulose, a pure hemi-cellulose as well as a pure reactive lignin. The process utilizes acetone as a solvent, which enables processing at lower temperature and pressure leading to lower capital cost and significant energy savings as compared to more traditional ethanol-based Organosolv fractionation technologies.
In UNRAVEL, a signature project of the FABIOLA™ technology development track, this mild biomass fractionation process is applied, further developed and scaled-up.
UNRAVEL develops advanced pre-treatment, separation and conversion technologies for complex lignocellulosic biomass to produce usable lignin fragments, and monomeric sugars from the cellulose and hemicellulose fraction suitable for biochemical conversions. The technologies encompass pre-extraction, the FABIOLA™ fractionation process and subsequent downstream processes to isolate and convert the lignocellulosic constituents into high-value applications.
Growing in the sea and thus not requiring any arable land, seaweed is one of the most promising and sustainable crops of the future. Seaweed contains many valuable components such as proteins, bio-stimulants and carbohydrates, intermediates in the production of essential biocomponents used in the food industry, animal feed, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics and fuels.
Seaweed biorefinery concepts can bring a significant contribution to the transition to a circular sustainable society by producing valuable raw materials which accelerate this transition to a biobased and circular economy. TNO experts have translated customer needs to potential applications for more than a decade. TNO has a specialized seaweed processing.
Pyrolysis offers a relatively straightforward and cost-effective technology to depolymerize lignin and lignin-rich biomass side-streams and convert them into gaseous, liquid and solid products. These products may be deployed for various value-added applications. The combustible and non-condensable pyrolysis gas (pyrogas) can be used for generating process heat, thereby decreasing the carbon footprint of the pyrolysis process itself.
The condensable part of the hot pyrolysis vapours (pyrolysis-liquids) contains various organic compounds that can serve as feedstock for high-value applications in the chemical industry such as fuel additives, rubber additives, bitumen-modifiers, epoxy- and phenol-formaldehyde resins, polymer (plastics) additives, individual aromatic chemicals, etc.
Finally, the solid carbonaceous product (pyrolysis char) is useful as a solid fuel or can be used as precursor for valuable products such as active carbon filter material, as a petrochemical substitution option for carbon-black in rubber or as a biobased substitute for insulation products.
PYRENA - PYPO-technologie
TNO focuses on the development of a continuous depolymerization technology based on pyrolysis with closely coupled staged condensation. This PYRENA – PYPO (PYrolysis for RENewable Aromatics with PYrolysis Product Obtention) technology is flexible and robust in terms of feedstock and product spectrum and offers a low-cost option yielding fractions that still are mixtures.
PYRENA - PYPO is primarily aimed at treating less pure, contaminated lignin(rich) feedstocks and at mid-range applications for the resulting (bio-aromatic) fractions that justify fractions/intermediates prices ranging from 300-1000 euro/tonne.
This technology is part of Biorizon, a cross-border initiative between TNO and VITO and is part of Circular Biobased Delta.