Energy Department awards Idaho partnership $1.9 million to stimulate nation's biobased industry

November 26, 2000

Amalgamated Research, Inc. (ARi) in Twin Falls will receive $1.9 million over the next three years from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a federal effort under the Office of Industrial Technologies Industries of the Future program to stimulate the nation's biobased products industry. This research project is in partnership with the DOE's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and a consortium of national and international sugar production, membrane production and biomass refining companies. The total project is $4 million, with the DOE providing $1.9 million, and ARi and the consortium providing $2.1 million to the three-year project.

"This project is an excellent example of how the Industries of the Future program is helping Idaho's agricultural, forestry and mining industries compete using cutting edge technology," said Robert Hoppie, administrator of the Idaho Energy Division.

The funds will support a new biomass refining system for purifying and separating biomass subcomponents (sugars or other chemical building blocks). Currently, biomass refineries are marginally effective due to their high cost. Partnership researchers will use these funds to improve biomass refinery efficiency by 25 percent, while reducing capital equipment costs of biomass purification and separation systems 10-fold.

Unlike petroleum refineries, biomass refineries break down agricultural crops and separate them into chemical building blocks. The building blocks are used to make products such as fuels and chemicals for plastics and adhesives. Biomass refineries are also more environmentally friendly than petroleum refineries, because the process of growing crops reuses the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) released by fuels and chemicals. These crops are used in biomass refining and the cycle continues.

"ARi, as one of the world leaders in industrial separations using advanced chromatography systems, has focused research efforts on reducing capital costs and improving operating efficiencies of both membrane filtration and industrial chromatography," said Dennis Costesso, vice president of Amalgamated Research. Industrial chromatography is the industrial scale separation of materials and solutions.

"The availability of low cost and efficient membrane and chromatography systems will open the door to a myriad of applications in the food, biotech and chemical industries. One example of a prime candidate for this technology is acid hydrolysis separations in the bio-energy field," said Costesso. Acid hydrolysis separation is a process where biomass is dissolved into its individual sugars. Then, the advanced separation systems purify these sugars for use in biofuels and bioproducts.

Using the sugar beet refining process as a model, researchers will improve the old sugar refining process and will shorten it from several steps into three more efficient and less expensive steps. Researchers will first develop a pretreatment system that will remove 80 percent of the suspended solids from the liquid slurry. This process will increase performance and reliability of membrane purification systems and will reduce costs by eliminating previous pretreatment steps.

Next, the liquid will pass through a hybrid membrane system to purify the sugar solution of remaining solids, resulting in an ultrapure liquid. The hybrid membrane system will be a combination of prefilters and filters that will be resistant to high heat, abrasions from solids and acidic solutions. Even more importantly, the membrane system will maintain a high flow rate of about 1,500 gallons per minute. After passing through membranes, the ultrapure liquid will pass into a chromatographic separator.

A chromatographic separator typically consists of several large, column-based pieces of equipment. This new separator system is based on fractal technology to control fluid flows. This separator, a symmetrical fractal distributor, will be unmatched in its fluid distribution uniformity. Additionally, these new columns may be significantly smaller than existing systems and maintain the same flow rate.

"Idaho needs to be a leader if we're going to compete in an economy fueled by science and technology," said Gary Mahn, director of Idaho Department of Commerce. "Amalgamated's biobased research project positions us as a state where cutting edge technology is developed that benefits Idaho and the entire nation."

Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne said the award "underscores the high caliber of the scientists in Idaho, and how their expertise can benefit Idaho businesses."

"This type of research can help meet the nation's energy needs, while finding new and productive uses for our agricultural by-products," Kempthorne said.
This award is part of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's biomass program totaling nearly $8 million spread over the next three years to encourage the U.S. biobased products industry to use crops, trees and residues to make plastics, paints and adhesives. The funds will support six research and development partnerships, as well as a new education initiative for encouraging multi-disciplinary research and teaching programs.

The INEEL is a science-based, applied engineering national laboratory dedicated to supporting the U.S. Department of Energy's missions in national security, environment, energy and science. The INEEL is operated for the DOE by Bechtel BWXT Idaho, LLC, in partnership with the Inland Northwest Research Alliance.

DOE/Idaho National Laboratory

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