A bio-based process to create crude oil from lignin could soon be ready for commercialisation following extensive development at Chemelot InSciTe (the Chemelot Institute for Science & Technology) in the Netherlands.
Researchers in the Lignin RICHES project are working on a thermo-catalytic chemical process invented at the Eindhoven University of Technology.
InSciTe is a public-private partnership founded in 2015 by DSM, a global science-based company active in health, nutrition and materials, together with the Eindhoven University of Technology, Maastricht University, and the Maastricht University Medical Centre, with support from the Dutch province Limburg. InSciTe has considerably expanded its partnerships over the past two years to over 20 partners.
Crude lignin oil (CLO) will be used as a fuel for ships and boats. It is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than “bunker” fuels that are currently used. These fuels contain high levels of sulphur (more than three percent), but despite this, no sustainable alternatives have been available – until now. Alternatively, CLO, just like fossil crude oil, can be converted into other valuable products such as octane-boosting additives for gasoline, as well as phenol and various polymer resins.
The InSciTe researchers have been collaborating with among others, a shipping company and a marine engine designer for some years now in their pursuit of a bio-based heavy fuel oil.
“Lignin is normally a by-product in the manufacture of second-generation bioethanol,” said Eindhoven University of Technology’s Michael Boot, who is leading the Lignin RICHES project.
He added: “Normally, it is then simply burned and used as an energy source in that same biorefinery. But when converted into CLO and used as an alternative for more expensive – and much dirtier – bunker oil, the economic value of lignin increases roughly fourfold.”
Work is still ongoing in the Lignin RICHES project to fine-tune the CLO refining process to further improve the efficiency and reduce the costs.
Researchers are currently investigating variables like process temperatures, solvent concentration, catalyst concentrations and residence time. This will enable the production of an oil that has the right properties and viscosity to pump through a pipeline and burn in a ship engine.
Pilot production scheduled for 2018
Before CLO is ready for market, further testing and production upscaling will be carried out at InSciTe.
A multi-purpose pilot plant is scheduled to be in operation in 2018. This plant will have a capacity of around a barrel (160L) a day, which will allow the partners to carry out tests on quantities in the range of hundreds of kilos and provide market samples.
“The future success of the project depends on us bringing more industrial partners on-board so that we can take the next important step towards more sustainable maritime transport,” said Boot.
In May, a spin-off company, Vertoro, was founded by Boot with the aim to commercialise the process- and product-IP that is generated within the Lignin RICHES project and to assist in the research and development activities therein.
The Lignin RICHES project is part of a broad bio-based programme running at InSciTe that focuses on the manufacturing of building blocks for numerous products based on ‘second generation’ conversion technology using non-edible biomass and agricultural waste as feedstock.
The processes used to convert biomass are highly complex and costly to develop, which is why projects are collaborative, bringing together technologies from various parties to help de-risk development and reduce the investments. Commercial parties are also involved to help shorten time to market.
In contrast to many other public-private partnership institutes, InSciTe has its own infrastructure with laboratories, pilot facilities and offices on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. It has two research programs, one on the development of biomedical materials and the other on bio-based building blocks.
InSciTe’s bio-based programme focuses on the production of sustainable materials and processes for marketable products and services that contribute to a circular economy.