Skip to main content

ValChem - Value added Chemical building blocks and lignin from wood

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ValChem (ValChem - Value added Chemical building blocks and lignin from wood)

Reporting period: 2017-01-01 to 2018-06-30

The use of renewable resources in the production of chemicals is in the perspective of sustainability highly desirable. It is believed to create numerous societal benefits such as the revitalisation of rural areas. These drivers are increasingly recognized, especially by brand owners. At the same time biorefining and biochemicals processes become increasingly cost efficient. Consequently, chemicals produced from biomass feedstocks, including woody biomass, are considered to become a major growth area. In that context UPM-Kymmene Corp. (Finland), SEKAB E-Technology AB (Sweden), METabolic Explorer SA (France) and the Technische Universität Darmstadt (TUDA, Germany) have partnered, joining competences of forest, chemical and bio-technology industries.

ValChem (Value added chemical building blocks and lignin from wood) utilised the existing demonstration plants of the four project partners, aiming to combine and integrate the individual processes as well as to demonstrate the complete value chain, starting from wood as raw material to produce the bio-alternative of the platform chemical monopropylene glycol (MPG) as well as lignin-based performance chemicals (Figure 1).

The project successfully achieved the objectives of process integration and demonstrated the technical viability of the overall process by producing industrial grade MPG from wood. Due to the progress of competing initiatives at UPM and METEX, however, and the necessity of prioritization, the consortium members jointly with BBIJU decided to suspend the project by the end of the second reporting period.
The ValChem value chain has been divided into 8 work packages, which delivered the following results.

Raw material supply chain:
UPM completed the preparations to set up a raw material supply chain for ValChem. It has been identified where and how wood for a potential flagship plant can be sustainably sourced at reasonable costs. UPM’s wood sourcing organization and IT systems have been reviewed and found to be fit for purpose to accommodate the additional wood-volumes. The results will be useful as a starting point in similar Biorefinery projects.

Wood disintegration process:
In its Biorefinery Demonstration Plan (BDP) SEKAB has demonstrated and enhanced its CelluAPP® process to disintegrate all relevant wood species from the selected sourcing area to cellulosic sugar hydrolysates and a lignin fraction with expected yields. In parallel the BDP delivered many tons of sugar and lignin to enable demonstration of the ValChem downstream processes. Results and achievements have been presented at several conferences and the achieved experience and knowledge are important input to other projects for SEKAB.

Sugar refining:
A sugar refining process, that is specific for the combination of SEKAB's wood disintegration process and the MPG production, has been installed and demonstrated at UPM’s biorefinery development center in Finland. One of the most important learnings was the identification of the root cause of inadvertent fructose formation during the upgrading process.

Producing MPG from refined lignocellulosic sugars:
METEX has developed and demonstrated a complete process for the production of MPG from wood derived sugars. The process encompasses fermentation, biomass separation and MPG purification. This technical demonstration was performed at a scale that has brought the technology to a significantly higher technology readiness level. Several hundreds of kilograms of pure MPG samples have been produced. The pre-industrial validation of this process step to convert such feedstock, is a major step, as it is paving the way to extrapolate this technology to the production of a number of other biochemicals.

Lignin upgrading:
UPM could demonstrate the upgrading of lignin from SEKAB’s CelluAPP® process at its Biorefinery Development Centre in Finland. In the first phase two different lignin upgrading processes have been evaluated, each achieving lignin purities above 95%. The more competitive process could be identified and further optimized in phase II. Another important achievement was that the glucose yield from wood could be increased by more than 15% by recovering residual cellulose present in crude lignin and recycling it to SEKAB’s CelluAPP® wood disintegration process.

Site and process integration for a potential flagship plant:
A prefeasibility study evaluated the investment potential across several potential sites and finally selected an industrial park located in a region which combines high wood availability with short transport distances and an excellent infrastructure. In the next step a feasibility engineering study was conducted, which integrated all process steps.

Application of upgraded lignin:
TUDA has developed methods to chemically modify lignin and designed new lignin-based formulations for polyurethane (PU) and epoxy resins. A remarkable achievement is the development of formulations with tailored elastomechanical properties. This progress increases the portfolio of lignin applications and provides an important stepping-stone towards enabling lignin-producing biorefineries. 1 Dissertation, 2 bachelor theses, 4 postdoctoral researchers and 4 practical courses at the TUDA dealt with the scientific questions of development related to lignin application. The research results have been disseminated through publications and conference contributions and are of great importance to the scientific community, as interesting relationships between molecular structures and material properties have been discovered.

Marketing and end-user involvement:
The markets for MPG and reactive resins have been analysed and attractive application segments for bio-based MPG and lignin-based performance chemicals could be identified. However, the timing of contacting customers and the late availability of representative samples prompted to postpone premarketing activities. The early project termination prevented the further pursuance of this objective.
The process demonstration work has expanded the state of the art by increasing the technical maturity of each individual process step and proving their technical feasibility with wood-based sugar streams. Also the achievements towards the use of lignin as macro-monomer for plastics are a major step forward. The main progress beyond state of the art, however, has been achieved by integration of all relevant processes towards an efficient biochemicals process.

Although the economic evaluation, could not trigger an investment into a bio-MPG flagship plant in the near future, the ValChem project has provided the opportunity for all partners to enhance their respective processes and technologies and to gain decisive know-how on many aspects of wood-based sugars and their use in a cutting-edge fermentation technology but also in the application of lignin. Due to this advancement, ValChem could already contribute to new business and project opportunities. In addition, selected learnings will be transferred to education via the partner from the university. In that sense, the outcome of ValChem continues to support Europe's transition towards a post-fossil society and to strengthen European industry to compete in the bioeconomy race.