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ValChem - Value added Chemical building blocks and lignin from wood

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ValChem (ValChem - Value added Chemical building blocks and lignin from wood)

Reporting period: 2015-07-01 to 2016-12-31

During recent years there has been a growing consumer demand for sustainable products. This has created a market pull for chemicals and materials produced from renewable feedstocks. Amongst the various types of renewable feedstocks, wood appears to be a very viable resource. As a raw material, wood is available all year round and is easy to transport and store at industrial scale. Harvesting and supply chains are well established in many European countries, typically in rural areas. Wood in Europe is grown mostly in responsibly managed forests which are certified according to internationally recognized sustainability schemes. In addition, forests provide recreational value and biodiversity.

Also from another perspective timing seems to be right. During the last years, several processes and technologies to produce chemicals from biomass have matured and reached an inflexion point. Further significant improvements can only be achieved at larger scale. A typical situation, however, is that individual process steps have been demonstrated in a different context. In order to validate readiness for an investment into commercial production, the whole value chain from wood to respective chemicals needs to be demonstrated.

In that context UPM-Kymmene Corp. (Finland), SEKAB E-Technology AB (Sweden), METabolic Explorer SA (France) and the Technische Universität Darmstadt (Germany) have partnered and set up the project ValChem (Value added chemical building blocks and lignin from wood). The overall objective is to demonstrate the technical and economic viability of producing selected wood-based chemicals that are competitive in terms of quality and cost.

ValChem is part of the BBI Joint Undertaking, a EUR 3.7 billion partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) aiming at increasing investment in the development of a sustainable bio-based industry sector in Europe. The benefits for society are seen in the creation of jobs, increasing the competitiveness of the European industry and enhancing the transition towards a sustainable bio-economy, by producing products from locally sourced raw material.
The ValChem value chain has been divided into 8 work packages.

1) Raw material supply chain
The aim of work package 1 is to set up a raw material supply chain for the ValChem project. During the first project period, it has been identified where and how wood for a potential flagship plant can be sustainably sourced at reasonable costs.

2) Wood disintegration process
In the next step of the value chain SEKAB’s CelluAPP® technology is employed, which breaks down the wood into cellulosic sugar and lignin. SEKAB demonstrated the readiness of the process to disintegrate all relevant wood species of the selected sourcing area.. In parallel the demonstration plant was adapted to fulfill the requirements of operating the plant in a continuous production mode. The modified demonstration plant has started production and the first batches of sugar hydrolysate and lignin have been shipped to UPM.

3) Sugar refining
This process step is demonstrated at UPM. As a starting point in this work package, the target sugar specification has been defined to meet the requirements of the downstream sugar-to-chemical process. Purification and concentration technologies have been tested in order to design the refining process and its equipment. During 2016 the refining equipment has been installed into UPM’s demonstration facility in Finland and the first batch of refined sugar solution was shipped to METEX.

4) Producing monopropylene glycol (MPG) from refined lignocellulosic sugars
METEX will demonstrate the technical maturity and economic feasibility of producing MPG from upgraded lignocellulosic sugars. The process consists of a fermentation step and subsequent downstream processing, consisting of separation of bacterial biomass and purification of MPG. METEX has increased the scale of fermentation from laboratory to pilot scale and has produced broths for the development of the MPG purification process. By December 2016 two purification process options have been investigated at lab scale and the first pure MPG samples have been produced from wood based sugars.

5) Lignin upgrading
The goal of this work package, led by UPM, is to demonstrate the purification of the crude lignin coming from the wood disintegration process of SEKAB, and to achieve quality levels as required by selected downstream applications. During period 1 of ValChem, the technical feasibility of producing high-purity (>95%) lignin has been demonstrated at pilot scale. Two different lignin upgrading processes have been evaluated.

6) Site and process integration for a potential flagship plant
Work package 6 covers site- and process-integration for the planned flagship plant. During period 1, a prefeasibility study evaluated the investment potential across several potential sites and one site has been selected for the upcoming engineering studies.

7) Application of upgraded lignin
The Technische Universität Darmstadt (TUDA) has developed an analytical toolbox in order to thoroughly characterize the chemical and physical properties of unmodified and chemically modified types of lignin. Another achievement of period 1 is the development of basic formulations for epoxy resins and polyurethanes using unmodified and chemically modified lignin. These formulations will be further optimized in period 2 of the ValChem project.

8) Marketing and end-user involvement
The markets for MPG have been analysed and attractive application segments for bio-based MPG have been identified. In parallel a detailed analysis of reactive resin markets was conducted and the most interesting potential application areas for lignin were identified and will direct the application development in work package 7.
Ever-increasing technical maturity of the individual process steps will expand the state of the art. However, main progress beyond state of the art will be achieved by integration of all covered processes to produce MPG from wood.

ValChem supports Europe's transition towards a post-fossil society. In case of a positive techno economic valuation of ValChem and a favourable market outlook, the project has the potential to trigger an investment into a first flagship plant creating jobs along a new, sustainable value chain.

Already at this stage, ValChem has proofed its potential to enhance significantly the knowledge to create value upon piloting and integrating of single process steps towards an efficient biorefinery. All partners are gaining decisive know-how on many aspects of wood-based sugars and their use in a cutting-edge fermentation technology. Successfully designed new and innovative materials based on lignin complements the target to add value to all components of wood and, in addition, it may be transferred to education via the partner from the university.