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THYME: Testing membranes as a low carbon solution in biofuel production

The
Challenge

As society moves towards a zero carbon future and builds sustainability into energy production, biofuel production has increased, as a means of replacing fossil sourced fuels.

Biofuels are made by fermenting biomass. The resulting fermentation broth, from which biofuels are separated, is made up of water and a mixture of chemicals which vary in value, such as Acetone, Butanol and Ethanol.

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UK legislation increased the proportion of biofuels used by transport companies from 4.5% to 12.4% by 2032* *Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), 2018

The current separation methodology employs distillation, which requires heating the solution to boiling. As the fermentation liquid contains large amounts of water (>95%), this method of separation consumes high levels of energy which are costly and result in high levels of carbon emissions. To make biofuel production economically and environmentally sustainable, a low energy means of separation is essential to the optimisation of the industrial process.

The
Approach

Lead researchers

Xuebin Ke

Project funded by

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Project partners

Nanjing Industrial Technology Research Institute of Membrane (NIM)

York University, Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC)

Working with THYME project partners at the Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC), and industrial partners in Nanjing, Hull researcher Dr Xuebin Ke set out to develop a membrane which would allow chemicals to be separated from the fermentation broth using pervaporation. This processing method is a type of filtration by which liquid mixtures may be separated by their partial vaporisation through a membrane.

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Dr Ke will design and test new types of pervaporation membrane that incorporate hydrophilic or hydrophobic surface properties which can be adjusted to separate and recover the valuable chemicals from the fermentation liquid.

Employing the BDC’s expertise in fermentation and their pilot scale process equipment and analytic instruments, the team will be able to replicate industrial conditions in order to test these prototype membranes.

The industrial partners will provide assistance in developing an appropriate test rig and can provide specialist advice on the scaling-up of membrane manufacturing and process design to aid the potential commercialisation of project outcomes.

The Impact

The research team expect that this novel pervaporation technique to separate biofuels will decrease the energy needs of the process by 80% compared to industry standard distillation. By designing a membrane able to separate biofuels from the fermentation broth at room temperature, the energy savings will make the process far more energy efficient and will therefore reduce carbon emissions. Production cost savings could potentially reduce the wholesale and retail costs of biofuels, making them more competitive with fossil fuel equivalents. There are immediate benefits in the selective recovery of the high-value product n-Butanol from the fermentation broth, and also further potential that the developed techniques may be applied to a variety of different solvents.

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