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Multilab Consortium Investigates Separation Technologies for Different Applications

Biomass, which includes organic material derived from plants, agricultural waste, and wet waste, has been used since man first began burning wood to cook food or keep warm and animal fats to light lamps. While fossil fuels overpower the energy landscape today, biomass is emerging as a key player in the clean energy revolution.

Biofuel has enormous potential to power energy-intensive vehicles like airplanes. Argonne is leading a consortium dedicated to developing the separations technology critical to converting biomass to low-carbon biofuel. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Scharfsinn

Biomass can be transformed into low-carbon biofuels that can be combined with conventional fuels or used directly to minimize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause global warming.

Biofuels offer immense potential as a replacement for fossil fuels. They are now utilized to power major modes of transportation such as airplanes, ships, and trains that are difficult to electrify while lowering GHG emissions, and there is potential for even more biofuels to be used in the future.

Optimizing the complicated process of turning biomass into biofuel is essential to exploit this potential.

Separations are Essential to Enable Biofuel Production

Separating useful compounds from other components, such as water, nutrients, microbes, and other organic material involved in biomass conversion, is important to the biofuel production process. Separation technologies now consume a lot of energy. They are also both carbon-intensive and expensive. Separations can account for up to 70% of the cost of biomass processing.

As the need for biofuels increases, so does the requirement for large-scale production technology. The goal is to get biofuels to market more quickly and efficiently. Biofuels could be more expensive than fossil fuels. According to the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), upgrading separations technology might cut the minimum fuel price of biofuels by 50% or more.

BETO created the Bioprocessing Separations Consortium in 2016. The consortium’s purpose is to create separation technologies that are both cost-effective and scalable. The consortium is led by the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are all part of the multilab collaboration.

The consortium is dedicated to identifying and overcoming separations challenges associated with converting biomass into fuels and chemicals. Teams from six laboratories conduct coordinated separations research. Due to the consortium’s work, new, high-performing, low-cost separations technologies will be available to biofuel and bioproduct industries.

Lauren Valentino, Principal Investigator and Environmental Engineer, Applied Materials Division, Argonne National Laboratory

Valentino explains, “We are not just focused on one technology. In the past three years, our multilab consortium of researchers has investigated 12 separation technologies for different applications. We are pursuing a combination of new and existing technologies to achieve our goals. These technologies are at different levels of commercial readiness.”

Separations are a phase in a multistep process for converting biomass to biofuels. It can entail physical procedures, like sorting solids from liquids, or chemical processes, such as utilizing an activated carbon filter.

Separations technologies recover materials necessary to produce biofuels. They also remove impurities that could affect efficiency. New technologies can help reduce the generation of waste and lower the environmental impact of separation processes.

Lauren Valentino, Principal Investigator and Environmental Engineer, Applied Materials Division, Argonne National Laboratory

Summaries of Separations Development Progress are Now Available

Over the last three years, the consortium has worked on projects focusing on extraction, electrochemical, membrane, adsorption, and evaporative separations technologies, harnessing unique laboratory capabilities and building on earlier work.

Counter-Current Chromatography, Redox-Based Electrochemical Separations, Lignin Fractionation and Purification, Volatile Products Recovery, and 2,3-Butanediol Separations are the projects.

The consortium was recently extended for three years, up to September 2025.

National labs are pooling our resources, expertise, and knowledge. Through this effort, we can tackle complex challenges that would otherwise be hard for a single institution to address. By working collaboratively, we leverage complementary skills and resources. We also share the risks.

Lauren Valentino, Principal Investigator and Environmental Engineer, Applied Materials Division, Argonne National Laboratory

Separations in bioprocessing encounter several technological obstacles. These difficulties reflect the diverse range of biomass varieties, conversion methods, and end products.

The consortium’s principal focus is on biofuel for aviation. Aviation is one of the fastest-rising sources of emissions. It is also one of the most difficult areas of transportation to decarbonize.

Aviation accounts for 7.5% of GHG emissions from transportation in the United States. Major airlines have pledged to aim toward zero carbon emissions by 2050.

While the consortium’s primary focus is biofuel, investigators are also interested in high-value bioproducts that can help reduce the cost of biofuel technologies.

These developments will considerably increase the use of biofuel. In 2021, biofuel accounted for approximately 6% of overall transportation energy use in the United States and less than 0.1% of worldwide aviation fuel.

Biofuel, unlike fossil fuels, is renewable. According to BETO, the United States has the ability to create at least one billion dry tonnes of biomass per year without negatively impacting the environment.

Through the work of the Separations Consortium and other BETO-funded projects, the use of biofuels is expected to rapidly increase in the coming years,” Valentino concludes.

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