A University of Kansas-led research team has received a $5.6 million grant to develop clean technologies to convert biomass into chemicals that could ultimately replace the petroleum-based chemicals currently used in many household items.
Bala Subramaniam, director of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis at KU was awarded the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop sustainable catalytic processes that would enable biorefineries to convert biomass from nonfood crops and agricultural leftovers into bio-derived chemicals. Once these technologies are developed, bio-based chemicals could become sustainable substitutes for petrochemicals in products such as laundry detergent, bathroom cleaners and beauty products.
"Shoes, paint, the food packaging in your refrigerator and the refrigerator itself are all made with petroleum-derived chemicals," said Subramaniam, the Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. "Each year, manufacturers use millions of barrels of petroleum crude to make these items. The CEBC is developing catalytic processes to convert biomass into biochemicals that can replace oil-based chemicals in these everyday products. This means sustainable bio-based products and decreased dependency on oil. And because crude oil supplies are finite, this is the only way to produce everyday chemicals in the long term."
As part of the project, the CEBC will partner with Archer Daniels Midland Co., a global leader in biomass production and biorefining headquartered in Decatur, Ill. KU and ADM will invest $1.4 million in matching funds, bringing the total project value to nearly $7 million. The CEBC/ADM project was one of only seven to be funded by USDA from a pool of approximately 300 applications.The grants were announced by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
In addition to producing bio-based products, the technologies being developed by the CEBC/ADM team could have enormous benefits for Kansas biorefineries and rural communities. While oil refineries have long been able to produce two categories of products — fuels and chemicals — co-producing commodity chemicals and fuels from biomass requires new technologies. The technologies being developed by the CEBC/ADM team would enable biorefineries to expand to chemicals, which produce about 10 times more value than fuels. The chemical portfolio in the CEBC/ADM proposal has a potential annual global value of $127 billion.
"Technologies for producing bio-based chemicals have perhaps the biggest potential for driving rural economic development in Kansas," Subramaniam said. "Biorefineries are already in Kansas because of our agricultural infrastructure and abundant biomass, and they produce mostly ethanol, biodiesel and lignin. The technologies we envision will produce high-value chemicals that will enable biorefineries to operate profitably, resulting in economic development in Kansas, including rural Kansas."Industry experts estimate that if biorefineries are able to mass produce biochemicals, 40,000 direct biorefinery jobs and 120,000 indirect jobs will shift to rural areas nationwide. Kansas has 15 operating biorefineries and is a top five state for biomass production.