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Bio-based Product Research


The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been involved in bio-products research since the mid-1970s, developing and applying novel thermal, chemical, and biological processes to convert biomass to industrial and consumer products, fuels, and energy. The hallmark of PNNL's research has been novel catalytic processes that convert sugars and organic acids to much higher value commodity and specialty chemicals. These products typically have a higher market value than biomass-derived fuel or energy, and the current worldwide market-place is very promising.

Novel Catalyst Research and Chemical Transformations

PNNL is developing new catalyst formulations and demonstrating their utility in new chemical transformations for production of bio-based chemicals. Novel high-activity catalysts for hydrogenation and oxidation in condensed phase conditions use noble metals and stabilized base metals for catalysis. Also under development at PNNL are stable catalyst support materials including metal oxides and carbons for aqueous phase processing. Other chemical transformations utilize the structures derived from biomass feedstocks to produce new chemical products.

Eukaryotic Organisms in Fermentation and Enzyme Discovery

PNNL has a group dedicated to fully exploiting the capabilities of filamentous fungi, the group of microorganisms largely responsible for recycling lignocellulose biomass in nature and the source of beta lactam antibiotics, the miracle drugs of the mid-twentieth century. These eukaryotic organisms have been relatively ignored for development of new fermentation systems and enzyme discovery and only a few of the hundreds of thousands of known fungal species are used to make useful products via large-scale culture. As these organisms are less well studied and generally less exploited than other groups of microbes, PNNL has established the capacity to study and manipulate them by building a culture collection for discovery, characterization, and product screening; establishing a fermentation laboratory; and developing novel molecular biology tools for genetic manipulation of the fungi as part of developing optimal production systems.

Applications of this new capability include

  • Development of novel fermentation systems to produce new chemical feedstocks
  • Discovery of new enzymes useful in processing biomass and derived products
  • Improvement of existing enzyme or acid production strains.

Biomass to Clean Fuels

PNNL has a long history in biofuels process development. Most of the work has focused on thermochemical conversion processes. Initial work in biomass liquefaction began in 1975 with an assessment of a wood to oil process demonstration plant. Subsequent work led to process optimization of biomass liquefaction and upgrading of bio-oils to transportation fuels. Catalytic and non-catalytic steam gasification of biomass was studied at several levels from laboratory tests to a small fluidized-bed pilot plant. These studies led to the development of an entirely new catalytic gasification concept using high-pressure liquid water as a low-temperature gasification environment.

Separations and Other Supporting Process Technology

PNNL designs, develops, and deploys integrated processing suites to produce high-value chemicals and fuel components from agricultural biomass and other low-valued feedstocks. These systems often require new processing concepts and systems development, and PNNL addresses all of the steps in the complete processing scheme, from feedstock pretreatment to purified product recovery. Included in PNNL process research are basic science and engineering capabilities, applied to biomass pretreatment to ensure effective recovery of optimal value from biomass, carbohydrate polymer systems to maximize energy efficiencies, and advanced micro-technology systems for separation and conversion processes.

Process Engineering, Integration, and Optimization

Chemical and biological processing of renewable feedstocks

PNNL expertise in bio-based products is based on chemical and biological processing of renewable feedstocks for the production of chemical products. As shown here, the transformation of low-value byproducts or waste into value-added products can follow a number of pathways. Our broad knowledge allows us to develop optimized systems of processing to produce value-added products from individual examples of biomass feedstock materials and processing situations.

Bio-based Product Research

PNNL Information