Fueling the power of ‘green’


Juan Pedrazza

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Fueling the power of ‘green’

It's a habit we'd love to break: our thirst for foreign crude.

One of every two barrels of the nearly 20 million the U.S. consumes daily is imported. It's not just the gasoline and diesel pumped into our vehicles; just about every sector of the economy relies on products—plastics and many synthetic fibers, for example—derive from crude oil.

That's today. But tomorrow renewable resources such as soybeans and crop residues likely will replace a lot of crude—and that's no flowing dream. A University of North Dakota process received a patent late last year that will green up the production of some key industrial chemicals, reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published Patent No. 8,076,504 for that UND invention – which has a title that's a bit of a mouthful -- "Method to Produce Short Chain Carboxylic Acids and Esters from Biomass".

The inventors are Alena Kubatova, associate professor of chemistry, Wayne Seames, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering, and Brian Tande, assistant professor of chemical engineering. The technology was developed under the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education (SUNRISE) super cluster program.

"Saturated short chain fatty acids are high-volume chemicals with a wide variety of uses," said Seames, who also is director of SUNRISE. "Everyone is familiar with the simplest of these, acetic acid, the active ingredient in vinegar. Acetic acid is also used to produce a series of polymers known as "acetate polymers."

The next simplest, propionic acid, is used as a food preservative and as an intermediate for many important chemicals and herbicides.

More complicated saturated fatty acids are used directly or in their esterified forms in coatings, lubricants, cosmetics, flavorings, fragrances and printing inks.

"Our newly patented technology allows these critical chemicals, which are typically produced from fossil fuel feedstock such as petroleum, natural gas and coal, to be produced from renewable feedstock," Seames said. "This increases the green content of the final products and reduces the overall carbon footprint for production."

In the UND process, feedstock oil from oilseed crops, algae, microbes, waste cooking oils and other sources are placed in a cracking reactor where the long-chain oil molecules are broken up into smaller fragments, explained Tande. Short chain fatty acids represent 15-40 percent of these fragments, depending upon the initial feedstock oil composition. These acids are extracted from the reactor outlet liquid using water or a base.

In the version of the process that SUNRISE is developing for commercialization, an amine is used for acid extraction. After extraction, the acids are recovered from the absorbing solvent solution and then purified into commercial-grade purity products. Most of the other 60-85 percent of the original oil entering the cracking reactor can be processed into transportation fuels, light hydrocarbons and other valuable co-products.

"This invention has the potential to significantly change the way the chemical industry produces several key chemicals that are currently used in making polymers for applications in the food industry, in agriculture, and as coatings and lubricants, among many other uses," Tande said.

Patently valuable

"This patent is the first to issue from of a series of pending patent applications UND has filed with the USPTO to protect an intellectual property portfolio based on SUNRISE's renewable oil cracking technology," said Michael Moore, an associate vice president and UND's principal commercialization officer. "The University is actively seeking to license this suite of technologies which produces fuels, chemicals and polymers from renewable feedstock sources for rapid and widespread commercialization."

The project demonstrates UND's increased emphasis on cross-disciplinary research and teamwork, which is spelled out in the University's "Exceptional UND" priorities.

"This patent is an example where collaboration between a scientific specialist, in this case, an analytical chemist, with engineers, can lead to technologies that are directly and immediately useful to society," said Kubatova, one of the co-inventors of the process. "Often in chemistry, the impact of our research is less direct. It's very satisfying to be a part of this development."

About ND Sunrise

ND SUNRISE is a student-centered, faculty-organized super cluster consisting of 31 faculty members in 13 academic departments at the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University and Mayville State University. ND SUNRISE research focuses on three areas: the technologies to enable the environmentally sustainable use of coal; the production of fuels, chemicals, polymers and composites from renewable sources; and the harvesting of energy from diffuse sources (wind/solar/hydrogen).

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