Copper-catalyzed Alkaline Hydrogen Peroxide Biomass Pretreatment Processes

Michigan State University Background
The process of producing biofuels and specialty chemicals from plant material (biomass) in an effective and efficient manner is highly desirable, with the potential to replace petroleum sources for many applications. However, producing chemicals from biomass is a complex problem due to the stability of plants’ secondary wall structure and the requirements of downstream processes that convert the treated biomass to value-added products. Researchers at Michigan State and Montana State Universities developed new copper-catalyzed oxidative methods (Cu-AHP) that effectively pretreat even difficult biomass, such as hardwoods. The Cu-AHP technology overcomes existing challenges of low lignin reactivity and poor process economics for lignocellulose-to-hydrocarbon biofuels processes and yields a highly reactive stream of lignin and cellulose.
The cellulose and hemicellulose streams are readily converted to simple, highly fermentable sugars at greater than 80% theoretical yield. Well-known processes are available for converting these sugars into a range of fuels or other value-added chemicals such as acids. Additionally, our researchers demonstrated that lignins separated from the biomass during Cu-AHP processing have high concentrations of aromatic monomers and small polymers, which may be directly used as a bio-based polyol replacement in the production of polyurethane foams and coatings, polyaldehyde adhesives, and epoxids. Notably, the lignins generated and recovered using the Cu-AHP process are demonstrably superior to other sources of lignin (e.g., Kraft lignin and other biorefinery-derived lignins.
Technology Overview
The principles of operation of this innovative deconstruction approach include (1) an alkaline pre-treatment of wood chips in aqueous NaOH at elevated temperature and pressure to achieve a target level of delignification followed by solid-liquid separation, (2) an interstage milling or mechanical refining stage, and (3) an oxidative post-treatment employing an oxidant (including O2 and/or H2O2), NaOH, and a homogeneous catalyst Cu(II) coordinated by 2,2’-bipyridine) to enhance oxidation, ultimately yielding a second aqueous lignin stream and a highly digestible cellulose pulp. These unit operations are outlined in We have demonstrated this technology in reactors at the 100-mL, 1-L, and 20-L scale and have a patent application filed as well as more than 10 years of research and development invested in this technology. Prior technoeconomic analysis by our research team has estimated that a biorefinery utilizing hybrid poplar as a feedstock and generating lignin coproducts is capable of yielding a minimum biofuel selling price of <$3.00/gasoline-gallon biofuel (). Further Details Yuan, Z., Bals, B.D., Hegg, E.L. et al. Technoeconomic evaluation of recent process improvements in production of sugar and high-value lignin co-products via two-stage Cu-catalyzed alkaline-oxidative pretreatment. Biotechnol Biofuels 15, 45 (2022). Benefits Cost Effective: the most price-sensitive target is bulk transportation fuels. Techno-economic analysis indicates a minimum selling price of less than $3.00/gal. Flexible biomass substrates: even difficult woody biomass is effectively pretreated using the Cu-AHP processes. Valuable bio-aromatics: the Cu-AHP process produces a highly reactive lignin stream rich in aromatic lignin monomers and small oligomers Opportunity Development Partners: the inventors are seeking corporate partnerships for a DOE-BETO grant to be filed in September 2022. This is an excellent opportunity to scale up the technology to continuous-reactor processes and to test additional applications for the cellulose stream. Commercialization Partners: licensees to take this technology to market.

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