They discover a new and profitable method to make ethanol from wood waste

By: Dr. Franyi Sarmiento, Ph.D., Inspenet, April 5, 2022

Today, ethanol is usually produced by fermenting sugars from starchy feedstocks, such as corn, or lignocellulosic biomass, such as wood or straw.

Thanks to this origin of ethanol, using it to replace fossil fuels reduces net greenhouse gas emissions, because plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) during their growth, and only release it again when the material extracted from them is burned in combustion engines. The same cannot be said of oil and its derivatives, which retain very old carbon, which would remain buried, with little chance of escaping into the atmosphere, if fossil fuels were not extracted from its deposits.

Therefore, ethanol is today a biofuel that helps to decarbonise the transport sector and that can be essential to reduce overall CO2 emissions in the long term.

The international team of Daniel Klüh, from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany, has developed a new process for the production of ethanol from wood waste.

In the new process, these wastes, mostly from the logging industry, are used together with hydrogen. Hydrogen is obtained by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen with the use of electricity, that is, through the electrolysis of water. In the future, this will allow surplus electricity from photovoltaic systems and other clean energy sources to be used to produce ethanol.

The new process is mainly composed of already known and technically mature sub-processes. However, the organization of the process steps as well as the final step (the hydrogenation of acetic acid to produce ethanol) are new.

According to the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is necessary to significantly reduce CO2 emissions to limit the consequences of global climate change. The production of fuel from renewable sources, such as wood waste and straw, from clean and renewable electricity, would be a way to reduce carbon emissions in the field of transport. Daniel Klüh’s team at the Technical University of Munich is working towards this goal.

Klüh and his colleagues have not only demonstrated the validity of the process, but have also determined that the cost of making ethanol with it is competitive.

To start using the method commercially, all that remains is to refine the catalyst and the reactor design a little more, and after that, start up a pilot plant to verify that everything continues to work well on a large scale.

Klüh’s team exposes the technical details of their process in the academic journal Frontiers in Energy Research, under the title “Techno-Economic Evaluation of Novel Hybrid Biomass and Electricity-Based Ethanol Fuel Production.”

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