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Valorization of alcohols issued from biomass

Final Activity Report Summary - VAALBIO (Valorization of Alcohols Issued from Biomass)

Due to the progressive depletion of fossil resources, there is an urgent need to find new renewable resources. In this context, the development of the biomass sector is on an exponential way and the targeted applications cover not only biofuels but also biochemicals/biosolvents in replacement of all the fossil resources-derived products. When one wants to utilise biomass, it is first necessary to convert the materials recovered after biomass separation procedures to raw materials that can further be upgraded to compounds with the desired properties. The envisaged upgrading technologies are most often based on catalytic processes that must be developed/optimised and, in this project, we specifically focused on the elaboration of novel efficient catalytic formulations for advantageously converting raw materials issued from biomass primary transformations, namely ethanol, pyrolysis oils, glycerol, and syngas-derived methanol to value added chemicals.

We targeted compounds in the field of energy (diesel additives, hydrogen) and chemical intermediates. Many of these reactions involve oxidation steps (redox properties), which means a complex set of parameters to be considered when tuning the catalysts, in addition to acid-base steps, which furthermore increases the complexity of the catalysts development.

We developed with Arkema a new catalyst that is extremely efficient for converting methanol to 'methylal', a compound that finds applications as a diesel additive, as a chemical intermediate and even as a green solvent. This catalyst shows exceptional performances when compared to those of the best catalyst so far developed by other research groups.

Then, we also developed an apparatus for testing the performances of catalysts for the liquid phase transformation of glycerol to fine chemicals. This apparatus contains important innovations compared to the existing devices, with a possibility to work under very high pressures and to finely measure all the reaction parameters. We have synthesised novel catalytic formulations, of which the testing and optimisation are under progress. During this work, the bibliographic study revealed that we also have the competencies to perform the gas phase reaction of conversion of glycerol to acrolein, a major chemical intermediate, and we attracted industrial investments. Thus, we are now studying this reaction under an industrial contract.

Further, we also developed catalysts for producing hydrogen from bioethanol, with the purpose of feeding fuel cells. These developments are successful since we recently found cheap catalysts that seems to work at unusually low temperatures. Their characterisation and optimisation are now under progress. Finally, we also obtained an industrial contract on purification of pyrolysis oils via a catalytic route with another industrial partner.

In addition to further developments/optimisation of the aforementioned reactions, the competencies we developed within the frame of this project encouraged us to propose a large scale European project entitled 'EUROpean multilevel integrated BIOREFinery design for sustainable biomass processing' (EuroBioRef), 'EuroBioRef', of which I am the coordinator, within the topic 'FP7-ENERGY.2009.3.3.1: Sustainable Biorefineries'. We successfully passed the first round, and the second round proposal has been submitted on the 5th of May 2009 (proposal reference number: FP7-241718-2).