BIOENERGY AND BIOFUELS: Current status and R&D activities
Bioenergy describes any energy source based on biological matter. The term of biofuels is sometimes used interchangeably, though more commonly it's used specifically to describe liquid fuels. Currently, the two main biofuels are bioethanol and biodiesel.
Commercial bioethanol and biodiesel are currently produced from starch/sugar-based crops and vegetables oils/animal fats, respectively. Bioethanol and biodiesel made from food crops, oils, and fats are viewed as “first-generation” biofuel, which competes with animal feed and human food for the source materials. To minimize the adverse impacts, manufacturing “second-generation” bioethanol and biodiesel from non-food plant materials has been explored.
Theoretically, lignocellulosic biomass can be used as feedstock to produce bioethanol. However, lignocellulosic biomass is recalcitrant. It is difficult and costly to release the fermentable sugars from lignocellulosic biomass for ethanol fermentation. Therefore, research has been intensively conducted to develop effective “pretreatment” methods for obtaining simple sugars from lignocellulosic biomass.
Worldwide, the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant (The Crescentino Bio-refinery, Crescentino, Vercelli, Italy) entered into full operation in 2013 with annually capacity of 20 million gallons of ethanol from wheat straw and giant reed using the patented “Proesa” technology in which biomass is pretreated with steam, followed by enzymatic hydrolysis. Nowadays, commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plants are during construction in China and USA and will speedily expand in the near future. Biodiesel is produced from oils or fats using transesterification and is the most common biofuel in Europe. In recent years, selected algae species were also studied for cultivating as a biodiesel feedstock. Critical challenges still exist in cost-effective cultivation of algae, in energy-efficient harvest of algae biomass, and ineffective algae oil extraction.
In part biofuel production in Thailand, majority of ethanol production is produced by the fermentation of molasses, a by-product of sugar industry, while biodiesel is obtained from the transesterification of palm oil. Technologies for production bioethanol and biodiesel are conventional technologies and imported. R&D projects in Thailand have been expanded to the second generation biofuels, with pilot projects on producing ethanol from agricultural by-products (bagasse) and biodiesel from non-food crops (Jatropha) or residues (waste cooking oil). Biodiesel production from algae is also under development but still at the early stage.
Advanced fuel processing laboratory (AFPL) which is one of the member group in The Joint Graduate School of Energy and Environment (JGSEE) is working to achieve the technological breakthroughs to unlock the bottlenecks of using biomass as feedstock. Examples of research are
o A study on biomass pretreatment and fractionation processes
o Development of process and system for converting lignocellulosic biomass to sugar and ethanol
o Development of sorbent for the dehydration of fermented ethanol for gasohol-grade ethanol (99.5%) production
o Development of process for converting hemicellulose to fuel and chemicals
o A study on the utilization of fractionated lignin and black liquor as high-grade fuel
o Development of Integrative Biorefinery Platforms and Prototypes for converting of biomass to biofuels and valuable chemicals
In addition, JGSEE collaborated with The National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) with their networks established Integrative Biorefinery Laboratory (IBL) in order to be a multi-disciplinary R&D center for development of platform technology and translation of technology to industrial application through contract and collaborative projects with industries. JGSEE is an organization to accelerate the growth of the new biorefinery industry in Thailand.