Why Produce and Use Renewable Fuels and Chemicals?
If you ask someone to name a petroleum product, the first thing they are likely to say is gasoline. What most people don’t realize is that this is just one of many products in our daily lives that are derived from oil. Plastic water bottles, polyester fabric, detergents, and paint are just a few examples of everyday materials made from petroleum-derived chemicals. Our reliance on crude oil touches many parts of our daily lives.
Renewable fuels and chemicals present an environmentally friendly alternative by using biomass as a starting product rather than petroleum. Wood, sugarcane bagasse, and corn stover (leaves and stalks of the plant) are all examples of non-food sources of biomass. From a chemical perspective, petroleum and biomass both have hydrogen and carbon backbones. By applying the appropriate processing steps, biomass-derived chemicals and fuels can be produced with identical chemical structures to their petroleum equivalents.
Technology Challenges of Renewable Fuels and Chemicals Development & Production
The technology used in the petroleum industry is over a hundred years old. That means over a hundred years of optimizing process conditions, configurations, and catalysts. Renewable fuels and chemicals can leverage this wealth of information as a starting point, but face unique processing challenges in an effort to be cost competitive with petroleum products. A few of these challenges include:
- Oxygen: Biomass contains oxygen, which needs to be removed during processing, most often as water. Standard petroleum catalysts do not function well in aqueous environments.
- Lignin: Lignin gives plants their rigid structure, but its complex polymer structure makes converting that portion of the biomass difficult.
- Impurities: Biomass is dirty. Literally. Dirt from harvesting plants makes it into the process and it can contain trace contaminants that impact catalyst lifetime.
The Challenges of Renewable Fuels and Chemicals R&D
These challenges are being tackled today through extensive research and development efforts. Laboratory-scale processing equipment is used to evaluate processing steps and test catalyst formulations. A small sampling of the variables that are leveraged include catalyst formulations, temperature, pressure, recycle streams, and different combinations of processing steps. Lab-scale processing equipment is highly configurable, almost like a set of tinker toys, and new processing lines or reactors can be plumbed in overnight.
Data handling needs to adjust just as quickly to allow for rapid process configuration, testing, and assessment. An informatics system to handle this data should have a flexible platform infrastructure, to allow for the variety of information, tests, and types of equipment which may be added or removed from the laboratory.
Why is a LIMS System for Important for Renewables Production?
The variable data produced in renewables research can be handled effectively using a laboratory information management system, or LIMS. Thermo Scientific™ Core LIMS™ software enables technology progression in renewables through its ability to structure data collection and manipulation in an environment that demands flexibility.
By relying on system configurations, rather than hard-coded functionality, Core LIMS software adapts to evolving research needs. A system administrator can quickly build a process configuration in the LIMS. That configuration then defines the data the technician should gather during the experiment, such as temperatures and pressures. Then analytical tests that should be performed on samples produced in the experiment are triggered as well as the calculations that are needed on the resulting data. This one experiment can result in hundreds of thousands of data points.
Core LIMS software captures information in a secure, searchable database, and allows researchers to access data immediately following an experiment. This rapid feedback helps them make informed decisions about what variables to adjust for the next test. Add a new processing step? Change the catalyst? Not a problem. A new configuration can be added in a matter of minutes. Unsure if an experiment has been tried in the past? Researchers can also revisit that data for previous years, because all the data required for experiment replication is completely recorded in the LIMS database. The reliability and searchability of Core LIMS software is a strong asset.
Advances in Renewable Fuels and Chemicals Research
Research into renewable fuels and chemicals is advancing rapidly. Core LIMS software is enabling that research by increasing the availability of data, and the ease at which it is entered and retrieved. Petroleum-based products are the norm today, but t-shirts and water bottles made from plants are just around the corner.
Lisa Kamke is a senior project manager. She is a chemical engineering and certified project management professional, with more than ten years of experience working in research and development.