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Research Center to Pursue Biorefining

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A research center at the University of Kansas, launched in 2003 to develop new chemical processes for industry, is preparing a major initiative to develop novel biorefining concepts -- a research frontier with major implications for agriculture.

The Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis envisions an investment of $2 million per year for five years that would bring additional industry partners for the initiative.

Biorefining is a concept that converts biomass, including materials derived from plants, into biofuels, biomaterials and biopower (heat and electricity). The concept is similar to petroleum refining that uses crude oil to produce similar products.

Research has increasingly focused on cellulosic ethanol, considered a next-generation ethanol that can be produced from a variety of plants and plant parts that contain cellulose, such as corn stalks, soybeans and beets. Ideally, biomass ingredients for biorefining consist of plants that don’t require water, fertilizer or cultivation. For that reason, a good biomass candidate is switchgrass, a common feature of the Kansas prairie.

Scientists foresee "biorefineries" in agricultural areas, using biomass to produce renewable feedstocks that can replace petroleum in the manufacture of plastics, chemicals and other materials.

According to Bala Subramaniam, director of CEBC and a distinguished professor in KU’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, research in biorefining is valuable to industries that are dealing with the rising cost of petroleum feedstocks

"A variety of useful products can come out of the biorefining process," he said. "In two to three decades, there will be an increasing shift toward alternate feedstocks such as biomass because of the depleting crude oil supply and increasing costs. The challenge is to develop biomass conversion technologies that are economically viable. Research must start now to make this happen."

Because it uses renewable resources and will rely on expertise on catalytic processing, the biorefining initiative is an ideal fit for the CEBC mission. The center, whose five-year, $17 million grant from the National Science Foundation is scheduled to end in 2008, involves more than 35 faculty researchers at KU, the University of Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis and Prairie View A&M; University. The CEBC vision is to make available to industry "sustainable" manufacturing processes that minimize their environmental footprint while remaining profitable.

Under the NSF grant, the center has developed active industry partnerships with 12 companies, including world leaders in chemical technology businesses such as Archer Daniels Midland, British Petroleum, DuPont, ChevronPhillips, ConocoPhillips, Engelhard, ExxonMobil, Novozymes, Procter & Gamble and UOP. A consortium of major pharmaceutical companies is also joining. Many of these companies have major strategic initiatives in biomass conversion.

Since the start of NSF funding in October 2003, CEBC research has resulted nine invention disclosures and three patent applications, which have been made available to industry partners for licensing. These include a new process to recover platinum from aged fuel cells; novel bleaching agents; nanomaterials for gas storage applications; a novel process for producing modafinil, a drug used for treating narcolepsy; and new energy-efficient technology alternatives for a variety of processes that produce commodity chemicals and potentially biomass-derived products.

To date, the collaborative research of CEBC scientists and engineers has resulted in some 26 publications in leading journals and a dozen more submissions.

KU has received more than $111 million in NSF funding since 1999, and the 2006 funding level was twice what it was in 2002.

Daryle Busch, chemistry professor and CEBC senior scientist, credits the founding of CEBC to a long standing collaboration between the chemistry department and the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering  at KU. The collaboration between Subramaniam and Busch also brought together experience in industry/university partnerships, another factor favoring the growth and success of CEBC.

"CEBC has a unique role to play in developing the complicated chemical biomass processes in order to make the more valuable chemical products used by everyone in their daily lives," said Busch. "CEBC will share in developing the new technologies for biofuels and biopower as well."

Story by Kevin Boatright, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7240.



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